Tag Archives: Seena Lancaster

Scene 313 – Aestas Domus

AESTAS DOMUS

JEFFERIES

Baile Samhraidh was like something out of a fairy tale.

When I realized we were being led into the sewers, I had expected… well, a sewer. The kind of thing you see in games. Dripping water, green slime, gelatinous monsters. And Domina’s sewers didn’t disappoint there. But just because Baile Samhraidh was in the sewers didn’t mean that it was a sewer.

We had been here for two days, and I still hadn’t gotten over the majesty of it all. The fey had dug down deep, creating a single room thirty feet tall, a hundred feet long, and about forty wide. Massive concrete pillars, crafted to look like stone, held up the ceiling. There were smaller side rooms and hallways, but there was no question that this one area—called the Park—was the center of it all. The walls were steps, like a Mesopotamian pyramid, and filled with beautiful plants and flowers.

In fact, the entire room was filled with plants, anywhere they could fit. Flowers around the edges. Bushes and herbs in plants along the walkways. There were thick trees wrapped around the stone pillars like vines, their leaves covering the ceiling above. Even with the canopy, the bulbs set in the ceiling created perfect artificial sunlight, providing light and nourishment to the plants below while making the entire place feel like a natural forest.

Despite it still being winter outside, the entire demesne was a balmy eighty degrees. It was comfortable enough that most of the feyborn walked around in short sleeves and shorts. The whole place smelled of life and nature, and I could even hear birds somewhere. It was easy to forget that you were under a city when you were here.

I was sitting on one of the steps, looking at a butterfly that had alighted on a nearby flower. Seriously, a butterfly. I couldn’t believe that they could even survive down here, so far from the sun. I was so distracted I almost didn’t notice when someone sat down next to me.

I turned to see Maiden Aurora, the Princess of Soil and Flame, smiling at me. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, and she wasn’t the one in charge of this entire demesne.

“Enjoying yourself?” she asked.

“This is a very beautiful place you have,” I said, keeping my voice carefully polite.

Her smile turned sad. “That’s not what I asked.”

I looked away.

She put her hand on my shoulder. “I know that the treatments are painful.” She chuckled. “And Titania’s bedside manner leaves much to be desired. But we’re almost done fixing your flawed body. By the end of the week, there will be no difference between you and a natural-born human.”

“That’s just the problem,” I said. “What do I do once I’m not dying?”

“…I assumed you’d contribute to the betterment of the city. Get a job. Slay monsters, fight Nessians. Something like that.”

I gave her a look, and lowered my voice. “Most changelings… they’re made from scratch, right?”

She nodded. “Mostly. We throw in a bit of DNA from random human samples and let it cook in an artificial womb. We let it grow to a random age, give it an imprint from the game maker, and then wait for them to escape.”

I frowned. “Game maker?”

“It’s a memory modification device,” she said. “Like the toy maker, but for minds.” She chuckled. “Hilariously impractical, though. It has absolutely no effect on normal brains. It only works on newborn changelings because they’re blank slates. It wouldn’t work on anyone else, even a newborn baby. Even then, we can’t do much more than give them basic instincts. Give them a starting point to learn language, motor skills, and so on more easily early on. If we didn’t use it, every changeling would take about eighteen years to grow to adulthood.”

I stared. “Is… is that something you should be just telling me?”

“People already know about the game maker,” she said, unconcerned. “It’s been on the open market for almost fifteen years—it’s just completely useless to everyone but us. And you already know where changelings come from.” She leaned back on her hands. “Though I am curious how you got your mind.”

I shook my head. “We’re getting off track. My mind is what I wanted to talk about. I’m not just a vatborn human. I’m a clone, body and mind, of a specific man. One of the President’s bodyguards.”

“That seems odd. Why was he chosen?”

“I was told it would be harmless,” I said. “And it was, I think. They needed someone loyal and self-sacrificing, someone who was in peak physical condition. That was me.” I paused. “Him. It was him.”

She frowned, but nodded. “Okay, let’s put aside the question of how the memories got copied so perfectly. What’s the problem?”

I sighed. “The problem is that there’s already someone out there living the life I want. My dream job, my dream family… I can’t even use my old name.” I put my head in my hands. “This was all so much easier when I only had weeks to live. I figured I’d either go to the afterlife and deal with this then, or not, and never have to worry about it.”

Aurora snorted, a surprising sound from her. “I don’t trust the afterlife. I much prefer to obtain real, tangible immortality, rather than just hoping in something beyond death. Every religion feels like a scam to me.”

“Uh…”

She forced a smile on her face. “But this isn’t the time to discuss my views on religion. The point is that you were procrastinating. Trying to put off the decision to later, when hopefully it wouldn’t matter. Now it is later, and it does matter. You have to decide who you want to be.”

I remained silent.

“Thankfully, you’re not alone.” She stood, and I followed her gaze to see Lieutenant Backstrom and Hall walking towards us. “I’m sure that your friends have opinions that could be helpful. One way or the other.”

“Private,” Backstrom said by way of greeting. She nodded at Aurora. “Honored Princess.”

“So polite,” Aurora said. “I’d love to speak with you more. But I’m sure you three have much to discuss, so that will have to wait for another time.” She patted me on the hand as she left. “Good luck, Mister Jefferies.”

Backstrom watched her go with a critical eye. “I’m still not sure I trust that woman.”

I shrugged. “If she wanted to kill us, why bring us here? Why feed us, shelter us, and heal me?”

“Because the fey are crazy,” Hall said. “Even the feyborn say that.”

“Regardless,” Backstrom said. “Even if she isn’t planning on killing us, she clearly wants something. She wouldn’t be investing so much unless she expected to reap some reward in the end.”

“Maybe.” I stood up, stretching. “I’m not going to worry about it, though.”

Backstrom raised an eyebrow. “You’re not?”

I shrugged. “What would it get me? Some ulcers? No choice but to deal with it when the time comes.” I winced and poked at my side. “I was going to take a walk. Either of you want to tag along?”

“You shouldn’t,” Hall said. “You don’t want to strain yourself.”

“I won’t go far,” I said. “I was just going to walk down Primrose Path.”

“I’ll come with you,” Lieutenant Backstrom said. “The last thing we need is for you to have an accident or something.” She shook her head. “I’m guessing that without you, our contract with the fey would be voided.”

Hall frowned. “What makes you say that? The fey didn’t mention it.”

“I just went for the most inconvenient thing I could think of. It seems like what they would do. Anyway, Hall, you go back to our quarters, make sure the others haven’t set anything on fire or gotten themselves killed or something.”

Hall looked like she wanted to argue, but just shrugged and saluted, then ran off.

I started walking towards the exit—the Primrose Path was in that direction—and Backstrom gave me a look. “You are going to be all right, aren’t you?”

I gave her a weak smile. “For this walk? Yes. For good? I have no idea. This body wasn’t designed to last more than a couple weeks at most. The fact that the fey have kept me going for as long as they have is a miracle.”

Backstrom fell into step beside me. “You never told me why you agreed to get cloned in the first place.”

“I thought—” I sighed. “Sorry, Bryan Jefferies thought that he was serving his country.” I chuckled. “The doctors say it’s important that I distinguish myself from him. We have all the same memories up until my creation, but we are not the same person.”

“So he’s still alive?”

I nodded. “Yeah. Secret Service, personally protecting the President.”

Really.” Backstrom shook her head. “That just raises more questions. Why would you—I mean, he—agree to this, or even be selected in the first place? And then they sent you off as a random grunt in a war. I’m not sure what the point was.”

“Proof of concept, mostly,” I said. “For both the clone bodies and the memories. As for why Bryan was selected, part of it was his peak physical fitness. The much bigger part, though, was his self-sacrificing nature. They wanted clones who wouldn’t mind that they were going to die after just a few weeks.”

Backstrom stared. “That might be the most horrible thing I’ve ever heard.”

I shrugged. “What would you prefer? Pick people who aren’t willing to die? Or just choose people at random, without giving them any say in the matter at all? I’m sure they learned a lot from me and my…” I waved my hands. “Whatever you’d call the others. My brothers, maybe? I dunno. I’ve never had brothers.”

Backstrom sighed, then gently took my arm and led me down a side passage. It wasn’t the Primrose Path yet, but I could smell it. “I suppose of all the terrible ways this could have gone, this was the best solution. Though I still don’t understand why it was important in the first place. What concept was being proven? Is there really such a use for a dozen clones bodyguards?”

“That’s way above my pay grade. I think they wanted to find a way to copy skilled people so that there can be more than one of them around at a time, but that’s just a guess. They didn’t tell me much.”

“Of course,” she said bitterly. We took a turn, and there was the Primrose Path before us. It was just another tunnel, but it was lined with primroses. Hundreds of them, of every color imaginable. It was beautiful, and smelled heavenly. Good thing, too, since this was the path to the sewers themselves. There was a guard at the far end of the path, a bored kemo standing in front of the door.

“I’m sure it’s for a good cause,” I said. “They were prepping for full production when I left, and they’d only do that if they had a really good reason.”

Backstrom frowned. “What is full production, exactly? How many?”

“I heard someone say ten thousand.”

TEN THOUSAND!?” she screeched. She glanced around, then continued in a lower voice. “What could possibly require ten thousand short-lived clones of a Secret Service agent? I don’t care if you—”

“Bryan,” I said.

“Whatever! I don’t care if these clones come out as the best soldiers the world has ever seen! I can’t imagine how they could ever be worth the cost. From both a monetary and moral perspective.”

I shrugged again. “I trust them.”

“What, a bunch of scientists who wouldn’t even tell you why?”

“No, I mean the clones. They wouldn’t do anything crazy, like execute a coup or destroy the country.”

She paused for a minute, staring at me. “Well, I suppose you know yourself well enough.”

I chuckled. “Yeah. I guess so.”

“I’m still curious how the memories were transferred, though. That’s far beyond what the toy maker is capable of.”

“Aurora mentioned something called the ‘game maker.’ Apparently it’s like the toy maker, but for memories.” I shook my head. “Except it can’t do anything like this either. Not yet, anyway. They use it to implant their new changelings with basic skills, but that’s about it. Full memory transfer should be impossible.”

Backstrom pursed her lips. “I’d like to say they’re underestimating America, but given all we’ve seen…”

“If the fey say something is impossible, I’m inclined to believe them,” I said. We reached the end of the path, with the kemo guarding the door. “But obviously, it happened. There’s no use arguing about it.”

She chuckled. “You’re just letting everything slide off your back, aren’t you?”

“I could die any day,” I said. “I don’t have time for stress.” I turned to the kemo. “Can we go outside?”

Backstrom frowned. “Jefferies!”

“What? You’re with me, you’re armed. It will be fine.”

“Lot of monsters just find bullets annoying,” the guard said. “Especially sewer monsters. You gonna try to shoot a jumper swarm? A school of mudfish? Fur and fang, even a basic leapeater will probably kill you before you can pump enough lead into it.”

“We’ll take our chances,” I said.

Backstrom rubbed her forehead. “Jefferies…”

“What, I’m not allowed to take risks?” I said. “Come on. I just want to see something besides flowers for once.”

“So you want to go out into a sewer.”

I shrugged. “Better than nothing.”

“Most people would disagree. It is, in fact worse than nothing, because it’s a sewer.”

“Filled with monsters,” the kemo added.

I shrugged again.

Backstrom sighed. “You know what? Fine, I don’t care. Let’s go.” The kemo opened the door for us, and she paused. “If we come running back here with monsters on our tail, you’ll open the door for us, right?”

He smirked. “Sure. Funny as it would be not to, Aurora would get mad.” His smile disappeared. “No one wants to see Aurora mad.”

I nodded in thanks and stepped outside.

The sewers… well, they were sewers. Not modern sewers, either. They were like underground rivers, flowing down stone tunnels with walkways on the sides. The walls and ceilings looked like they were stone blocks, but I was pretty sure that was just a texture on top of concrete. Or whatever it was what modern sewers were normally made of. Metal, maybe? No, that would rust. Plastic, then?

I started walking north. It was slightly darker than the other direction. Most of the electric lights had broken, and the only illumination came from the phosphorescent glow of insects too small to see.

“Jefferies,” Backstrom said, her tone curt. “Where are we going?”

“Just walking,” I said.

“You’re walking too fast for someone who is just walking. You have some goal in mind, and you’ve been too set on the sewers from the start.” She stepped in front of me and turned to face me, hands on her hips. “Tell me what your plan is or I’m dragging you back to the demesne. Are you running away?”

I rolled my eyes and handed her the note Aurora had given me. “Here.”

She frowned and took it. “’Walk the Primrose Path to the sewers, then turn to the darkness. You will find something interesting.’” She looked up. “Who gave this to you? One of the feyborn?”

“Aurora herself,” I said. I pushed past her. “I didn’t see much of a choice.”

Backstrom hurried to follow. “Fine. And what if this is a trap?”

“Aurora doesn’t seem that malicious.”

“Maybe trap is the wrong word. Possibly-lethal prank, maybe?”

I winced. “Okay, yeah, that’s more in-character for her.” I sighed. “I don’t know. I don’t think she’d do anything to risk me, but it’s hard to tell with her.”

“Then why go along with it?” She waved the note. “This doesn’t promise any reward.”

“I just thought it was a good idea to obey her,” I said. “Keep her happy. Besides, maybe ‘something interesting’ will be a good thing.”

I heard gunfire up ahead. Just a single shot, echoing through the tunnels.

I stopped dead and glanced at Backstrom. We waited a few moments.

“Monsters don’t use guns,” I said. “And a person would have kept shooting.”

“Unless the monster killed them after the first shot,” Backstrom said.

I struggled to make a decision, then ran forward. If I wanted to be able to look myself in the mirror tomorrow, I didn’t have a choice. I heard Backstrom grumble something, but she followed a moment later.

It wasn’t far, which was good, because my body still wasn’t in perfect shape yet. I was already panting at the first turn, but we found what we were looking for right there. A bodyguard’s eyes were sharp, and I took in the scene in a glance.

Three people stood on the sides of the sewer. One was big with jet-black skin and a powerful tail, one was a baseline male with a ‘sarian band tied around his arm, and the last was a kemo female with the same band. She had feline ears, maybe tiger. Hard to say. She was the one with the gun out, though it was pointed at the ground.

In the middle of the sewer, in the water itself, was some kind of gargant. Large, maybe eight feet long, and muscled like a linebacker. It seemed to be quadrupedal, but it might have just been on its hands and knees. It was covered in hair so thick that it was impossible to tell much else about it. I couldn’t see a mouth or eyes. For all I knew, it didn’t have any.

Backstrom pulled her gun out with a practiced motion and pointed it at the gargant. “Friendlies! What’s the plan? Fight or retreat?”

The kemo and the one with the tail stared at her, but the baseline reacted quickly. “Neither. Diplomacy.” I noticed that he had a gun of his own, though he hadn’t drawn it. “Where’d you two come from?”

“Baile Samhraidh,” I said. I jerked a thumb back the way we came. “One of the side exits is pretty close. Situation stable?”

The man glanced at his partner and frowned. “…stable enough.” She gave him a glare, but pointedly holstered her gun. He turned to us. “I’m Detective Abraham Gosling. This is Detective Utako Tora, and Noble Nyashk of the Mals.”

“I’m—” I stopped as his words sunk in. “Wait. Why is Necessarius running around the sewers with a vampire warlord?”

“I am helping them with…” She glanced at the gargant. “…their problem.”

“What are you doing here?” the kemo—Tora—asked. Her hand was still on her gun.

I forced a smile onto my face. “I am Curtis Jefferies. Just Jefferies will do fine. This is Evelyn Backstrom. We were sent out here by one of the fey.”

“Which one?” Nyashk asked.

“Aurora. Maiden of Summer.”

The three of them glanced at each other.

“Aurora… took something from me,” Nyashk said. “At least, I believe it was her. It was before the reformatting.”

Backstrom shook her head. “Before we get into the politics, can we please discuss the giant ugly gargant?”

The gargant growled and rose out of the water. I could see two beady little red eyes under the fur, glaring at Backstrom. And there was… something else. A feeling in my chest. Not quite pain, but definitely pressure.

Nyashk rushed over and smoothed down his fur, whispering something. The pressure in my chest faded, but the gargant still stood there, glaring.

“…what was that?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Nyashk said. “He didn’t like her tone, that’s all.”

“Lady, I’ve worked with animals before.” Well, Bryan had, but whatever. “Backstrom’s tone was fine. Her words set him off. He understood her.”

The gargant slowly turned to face me. The pressure in my chest returned.

“And he has a power, doesn’t he?” I whispered.

The pressure in my chest increased.

Nyashk pet the gargant more, whispering where his ears should be. The pressure eased up again, but slowly.

Gosling coughed to get my attention. “As far as we can tell, the fey engineered him with a blood weakness so that he couldn’t turn on them. Either too high pressure or too low pressure, I’m not sure, but he needed them to fix it. Then when the Rampage hit, he gained the power to control blood, including his own. And suddenly he didn’t need them any more.”

I clutched my chest. “So he—”

“If he wanted you dead, he’d make your heart explode out of your chest,” Gosling said. “He’s done it before.”

I closed my eyes and took several deep breaths. I really hated these powers. Monsters, I could deal with. Yeah, they were weird, but in the end they were just big animals. The powers… I could deal with those on a case-by-case basis. Pyros were just like people with a flamethrower, telepaths were basically just really good spies.

But a gargant with a power… that was something else.

What did Aurora expect me to do here? Kill him? I’d probably have more luck killing a mountain. Take Nyashk hostage to force his compliance? She was a warlord. Besides, I still didn’t know what exactly their connection was. Maybe it would just send him into a mindless rage.

“How?” Backstrom asked.

I frowned. “What?”

“How did he get a power? None of the other monsters did. What makes him special?”

I stared at her. “You really don’t know?”

“Know what?”

I glanced at the others. The ‘sarians looked embarrassed, but I wasn’t sure Nyashk was even listening. She was still petting the gargant and whispering into its ear.

“I don’t exactly know the full details myself,” I said. “I just made some guesses. Maybe you guys can fill in the blanks?”

“…I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Tora said. “I think this whole thing might technically be classified something or other. It’s not really a standard case. I mean, it started as a standard case, and then everything went sideways…”

“Tora,” Gosling said. “Who are they gonna tell? The fey? They obviously already know.” He jutted his chin at the gargant. “I’m guessing they’ve got a tracker in our friend here. It’s the only way they found us so easily.”

“Will someone explain something?” Backstrom demanded. “I have had it with insane fey, monsters, and now super-powered gargants—”

“He’s my son,” Nyashk said.

Backstrom’s mouth shut with a click.

“I wasn’t sure about the son part,” I said, “but otherwise… yeah. Only humans got powers when the Composer hit the whole city.” Aurora had helped a bit with recent history. “If he got a power, that means he’s human. Simple as that.”

“I…” Nyashk took a deep breath. “I made a deal with the fey. Maybe it was a good idea, maybe it wasn’t, but I made it. They weren’t supposed to… anyway. They took one of my eggs. They grew the egg.” She patted the gargant again, tears in her eyes. “Modified it. Turned it into a weapon. I still don’t know why.”

“What about the other gargants?” Backstrom asked. “Were they all human—”

“He is human,” Nyashk snapped, eyes flaring.

“Right. Sorry. My point is, do the other gargants have powers?”

Nyashk glanced at the ‘sarians.

“No one has seen any,” Gosling said. “And no one has ever seen a gargant—besides this guy—display anything more than bestial cunning. I’m guessing the rest are just what we always thought: Normal animals, horrifically modified.” He looked sadly at the gargant. “Then someone got a bright idea to modify humans in the same way.”

“Like changelings,” I said.

Everyone stared at me.

“I mean, sort of.” Changelings were homunculi like me, made from scratch, but as far as I knew there was no reason they had to be. “In the end, isn’t that pretty much what he is? A changeling that’s more monstrous than usual? I heard that some of them don’t even look human when they escape. And, well…” I shrugged uncomfortably.

“You know, that’s a good point,” Tora said. “The changelings might be able to fix him. Revert the modifications.”

“He was modified as an egg,” Gosling said. “Not even as an embryo, a God-dammed egg. I think you’d find it easier to grow a human from scratch than fix him.”

“It’s worth a shot,” Nyashk said. She was still petting the gargant. “I have a friend among the changeling warlords. She’ll be willing to take a look, if nothing else.”

The gargant seemed to like that idea. He nuzzled her hand, and she smiled. But how much did he really understand? Yes, his monstrous appearance was making me underestimate his intelligence, but how long had he been alive? How much knowledge or experience could he have accumulated?

Huh. Accumulated. I was spending too much time around the feyborn. A lot of them were college-educated toy nerds. Their higher vocabulary was rubbing off on me.

“Well, good luck,” I said with a smile. I was afraid if I said too much more, I’d say something stupid and insensitive. “We should really be getting back.” I grabbed Backstrom’s arm. She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t resist.

“Wait,” Tora said. “That’s it?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to… I dunno… try to capture him? Or us? Or convince us to bring him to Summerhome?”

I smiled. “I don’t have any orders here. Not even a suggestion of an order. If Maiden Aurora wanted me to do something, she should have said so. Not just thrown me in this direction and hoped for the best.” I nodded politely. “Hopefully we will see you around, detectives, Noble. It’s been a pleasure.”

They didn’t say anything as we walked away.

Backstrom pulled out of my grip once we turned the corner. “Interesting choice.”

“Only choice, from my perspective.”

“Uh-huh. And what if this is what the fey intended from the start? For you to drive the gargant into the waiting arms of the changelings? Maybe use it to ferret out some hidden base or destroy a troublesome warlord?”

I sighed. “I think, at this point, I can safely say that it’s just not our problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 313)

The gargant has been a long time coming. His plot is mostly done, but there’s still a little bit left.

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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.

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

break

Scene 238 – Arcana

ARCANA

SEENA

“Noble Nyashk!” the fey with the shoulder-length black hair cried joyfully. “So wonderful of you to join us! Would you like a seat?”

“…I’ll stand, thank you,” I said thickly. A young kemo with blue fur offered me something in a delicate wine glass; I brushed it away. “I’m here to see Veda.”

The fey domain, their demesne or castle or whatever, didn’t have a name that I was aware of. Mab—the Unseelie Matron who owned the place and was now smiling at me—probably had some unpronounceable name for it based on some obscure Irish myth, but I didn’t care enough to ask.

The demesne was underground, which was only to be expected, with the only entrance from the surface that I knew of a small service tunnel from the nearby sewers. The entrance, directly behind me, was a long metal walkway over the water, covered in a thick layer of frost like a freezer.

I stood now in some sort of receiving hall, a mid-sized concrete chamber with a cold mist swirling in the air. The floor was a soft white carpet probably meant to look like snow, and the walls had grills for the hidden fans that kept the place below freezing.

There were a few other exits from the room, apparently unguarded, likely leading deeper into the domain. The only other features of note were the dim lights in the ceiling (off now, since we all had nighteyes) and the variety of chairs and couches scattered around, all carved carefully from living ice.

My warlord buffs were impressive, and made the arctic temperatures feel only barely chilly, but you can understand why I declined to sit.

The girlish fey tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Veda, Veda… can’t say that rings any bells.”

“Razvan,” I ordered.

One of my bodyguards stepped forward and fired, shooting at one of the grills in the wall. The device screeched in protest as the bullets chipped off pieces of the spinning blades, which quickly lodged in sensitive areas and ground to a halt.

The fey-slave, or whatever they were called these days, flinched away from the display of force, but Mab wasn’t impressed. “Vandalism is not going to help you,” she said chidingly. “Do you know what prince she serves under?”

That did help, actually. Back at the Wild Hunt, when Veda had introduced herself, she had… well, she had introduced herself. I couldn’t remember what name she had used, but the title was simple enough. “She is the Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. She was the announcer for the Wild Hunt, with the Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”

The fey blinked her black nighteyes in something that almost looked like surprise. “Oh, you mean Aitil Péine? Why didn’t you say so? Yes, she’s here. She lives in the Killing Sparrow quarter of the demesne.”

“Thank you,” I managed with forced politeness. “Would you please take us there?”

“I could, but she is not there at the moment. She is in the Forgotten Dawn quarter.”

It took me a second to recall what that meant. I had been reading up on the fey quite a bit these days, all things considered. “That would be… Night’s Eastern Spring?”

Mab beamed. “Correct! You see, the demesne is constructed in a natural pattern—”

“That’s not really important at the moment,” I interrupted. “Can you just take us there? Or tell her to meet us here, or something?” On second thought, having her meet us here was a bad idea. Walking through the fey domain would provide us with invaluable information on the way they had formatted their ‘culture.’ I shouldn’t have suggested anything else. I still wasn’t thinking like a warlord, even after everything.

“Sure!” Mab chirped. “Bláth Sioc will take you to her.”

Luckily, the fey were still crazy.

Mab disappeared down one of the hallways with a vague wave goodbye, leaving us behind. The blue-furred kemo—well, he wasn’t actually a kemo, I guess—who had offered me a drink bowed politely. “This way, Noble Nyashk. If your guards could stay behind, I’m sure Matron Mab would be most appreciative.”

Marcel, my other bodyguard, stepped forward with a frown. “We’re not going to—”

I silenced him with a raised hand. “It’s fine. Just stay here and make yourselves comfortable.” That was code for ‘watch the warlord.’ They’d follow Mab down the other hallway and report on her movements.

Bláth Sioc bowed again, and led me down the hallway that his Lady had not taken. It was about the same as the waiting room—cold, with every available surface covered in frost—except there was no carpeting on the cold concrete floor. That was fine with me, but still something I found interesting.

After a dozen or so twists and turns over a relatively short walk, clearly meant to confuse newcomers as much as possible, we finally exited the hallway, and I realized we were in the demesne proper.

Now that I saw it, I felt silly for calling the waiting room a part of the domain. Oh, it was, but it was like a restroom in NHQ. It was not intended to be anything impressive; it was just a minor, functional room.

This was not a minor room.

This was clearly intended to be impressive.

And by all Nine Hells and the Black Gates that guarded them, it worked.

We came to an open area the size of football field, stretching nearly out of sight both left and right. We were in a corner, and across from us the walls were so distant that they were just featureless blurs. If there were any tunnels like this one, I couldn’t see them.

And then there was the pit.

A deep black pit that started ten feet from where I stood. No, that was the wrong way to describe it. Rather, the massive, square pit the size of a football field was ringed by a lip of stone ten feet wide. It was deep enough that I couldn’t see the bottom, but I could hear the splash of water and sirens’ songs. Was there a tunnel to Whitecap Bay down there?

But while the bottom of the pit was too distant even for my enhanced eyes to see, the walls of the hole were another story. The walls were sloped sharply, like an upside down pyramid, and would eventually create a sharp point at the bottom if taken to their logical conclusion.

The walls had windows carved in them, and even a scattering of wooden walkways constructed to lead from one to another. There weren’t too many people trotting on the scaffolding, but enough to confirm that that was their purpose, and to divine the meaning behind the windows themselves.

It was a city, where the fey-blessed could live and work. It really was like an inverted pyramid. After the hole was dug—however they managed that miracle—they must have started carving out rooms from the walls.

“Noble Nyashk?” my guide asked pleasantly. “Is something wrong?”

I shook my head. “No… nothing. Can we see the Forgotten Dawn quarter from here?”

He nodded. “Yes, of course. It’s right there.” He pointed to a point across the pit, near the top. I frowned, realizing that he was indicating the east wall of the pyramid. Was that intentional? Mab had been saying something… gah, I should have paid more attention.

“We can just walk over there, right?” I asked. “You don’t need to have wings?”

Bláth Sioc smiled. “Most of us do not have wings, Honored Noble. Prince Péine, while not quite unique in that respect, is still exceptional. They are still in extremely early stages, you understand, and cost a lot of time and money to maintain.”

I nodded. Made sense.

“Now please, follow me, and stay away from the edge. You might be able to survive the fall, but I really don’t want to find out on my watch.”

I smiled as I fell into step behind him. “I promise I’ll watch my step.” I peered over the edge, once again hearing the sound of water splashing deep below, followed by laughter. “Are those sirens down there?”

“Of course. The Unseelie court has had a positive relationship with a number of the Whitecap Bay cultures since the end of the war. This is one of the few places we can interact with them on their terms, since we can’t exactly go hang out on the Ring in plain sight.”

I smiled at the thought of it. There would be riots.

“As I understand it, the Princess of Wind and Frost has a particularly good relationship with the sirens. She might be down there now, you could meet her later.”

Wind and Frost was… Maeve. The one who had recruited Veda and killed Delphie. Failed to save her. Whatever. “I think I’ll pass on that, actually.”

“As you wish. If memory serves, she is the one who recruited and modified Prince Péine, so I assumed you would enjoy the chance to speak with her. And I personally find her quite charming. She is a delight.”

Huh. Honestly hadn’t expected that. The fey had been sniping at each other for so long, I had just assumed that their followers would be the same. Maybe Bláth Sioc served the Unseelie as a whole, rather than one of the individual Ladies?

We really did need more intelligence. Hopefully, Marcel and Razvan would have luck on that front. I couldn’t afford to be distracted from my goal right now.

It didn’t take long to reach the east side of the pit, where the furry little fey-blessed showed me a door in the wall, which hid a set of stone stairs spiraling down. We only had to go down two floors before getting off at Forgotten Dawn.

I found Veda the second I opened the door.

She looked the same as she had the day she had announced the Wild Hunt, an event that had been interrupted by the Composer. Honey-brown skin, brown hair, and onyx black nighteyes. Even her three pairs of translucent insect wings had been repaired.

She wasn’t wearing the dress from that night though. Instead, she had on a pretty basic black t-shirt, with most of the back missing to make way for her wings. It had to be cold in this environment, but she showed no signs of it. Only to be expected, I guess.

The feyborn Prince nodded to me. “Noble Nyashk.”

“Cut the crap, Veda,” I snapped. “You have a lot of explaining to do.”

Veda turned to my guide. “Thank you, Bláth Sioc. I can handle it from here.”

The blue-furred man bowed and left without another word.

Now that I had a moment to calm down, I noticed that the room we were in was surprisingly small and austere. Everything was bare stone, with the wall with the window angled due to the inverted pyramid shape of the hole outside. Other than a cabinet in the corner, a table, some chairs, and a rug on the floor, the room was completely empty.

“What is this place?” I asked. “I was under the impression it was Forgotten Dawn’s audience chamber, not… a broom closet.”

“It is. The audience chamber, that is. Or, I suppose it’s more of a meeting room. A simple little spot we can use to talk to each other. Nothing so large or ostentatious as the ones we show to outsiders.” She smiled and indicated I should sit; I did, hesitantly. She crossed to the cabinet. “Would you like some wine?”

“No thank you,” I declined graciously. Though with my new metabolism, I could knock back a couple dozen bottles before I started to feel the effects. Outside the window, I caught another peek at the massive construction. “When did the fey have time to build this place, anyway?”

“They’ve been around pretty much since the beginning, you know,” she reminded me. “Since shortly after the angels were formed.” She thought about it. “That’s… what? 1986? So yeah, they’ve had fifteen years or so.”

That still seemed like a lot of work to finish in fifteen years, especially in secret. But I suppose having an army of slaves and a complete lack of morals helped speed the process along nicely.

Regardless, that wasn’t why I had come. “Veda, I’ve got a lot of questions for you.”

My transformed friend nodded as she poured herself some wine. “Understandable.”

“All right, let’s start simple. Why’d you join the fey?”

“I needed a patron, and Delphie needed a rescue,” she said blithely. “It was a simple exchange, and one I was happy to make.” A dark look passed her face, and she took a sip of her wine as she sat down. “Though I’ll admit it was more painful than anticipated.”

“And where is Delphie now?”

“Dead. She did get half her face burned off, after all. Lady Maeve did her best, of course, but it was too little, too late. In addition, the acid was poisonous.”

“If your reason for being here is gone, you should leave.”

“My reason is not gone,” she said. “Weren’t you listening? I was looking for a patron. I was a powerless kemo of a quasi-culture so small we literally did not have a single warlord to our name. I wanted this.” She eyed me over her glass. “As a warlord yourself, I would think you’d understand.”

I sighed. “Fine. You’re ambitious. I get it. Tell me what was up with that Wild Hunt.”

“No.”

I blinked. “No?”

“No,” Veda repeated. “I think, if everything had gone as planned, I would have explained. But with the Composer interrupting and then giving everyone in the city powers…” She sighed. Things are a bit too crazy at the moment.”

“Too crazy to explain for five minutes?” I snapped. “Come on! It can’t be that complicated!”

“It’s not,” she admitted, as she swirled the wine in her glass. “It’s just… with the powers, and whatever happened with that Elizabeth look-alike, and Soaring Eagle fleeing the city, and the colleges, everything is just too jumbled up right now. It’s not that the Wild Hunt is too complicated to explain. It’s just too irrelevant to explain right now. There are simply other things to worry about.”

“Like these colleges you mentioned?”

The fey Prince nodded. “Exactly. You’ve heard of them, I take it?”

I shook my head.

“Oh.” She pulled another glass from somewhere, and poured out some wine for me. “This might take a while.”

Scene 209 – Venator

VENATOR

DEREK

“Akane, stay with Adam,” I ordered, my voice thick. She’d pull him somewhere out of the way, keep him safe. “I’ll handle the Composer.”

Handle me?” Elizabeth said, giggling like a loon, her blood-drenched dress ruffling in the night breeze. “Little Huntsman, you and the freak together could barely keep up with me. And now…”

She flicked the lighter in her hand—where did that come from?—and a bolt of fire zipped past my ear, into a ‘scraper behind me. What was she…

Then the building exploded.

Every window in the first floor belched forth fire and smoke, enough to completely vaporize every wall and support beam on the inside. It was too much for that little flame; she must have planted explosives in there beforehand. Or maybe the fey did, and she was just taking advantage.

It didn’t matter how. The important thing now was that the building was falling towards me, like some massive gray tree felled by a lumberjack with a grudge.

“…now, you have other things to worry about.”

Silver moon and golden sun, what was I supposed to do in this situation? The structure was easily fifty feet across and a couple hundred tall. I couldn’t dodge—or maybe I could, but the panicking civilians with no where to go would still get squashed. I couldn’t—I couldn’t—

My mind was locked into panic mode.

My body was not.

I moved instantly into horse stance, instinctively spreading my legs to a wide but stable position, grabbed every drop of power in my reservoir, and—

Not a millisecond too soon, the falling skyscraper crashed onto my glowing blue shield.

At fifty feet wide, it was easily the biggest shield I had ever created. It hovered ten or twenty feet above my head, raining down soft wisps of azure mist onto both me and the awestruck bystanders.

Then the strain hit me.

I fell to one knee, cursing under my breath, holding my hands above my head as though physically keeping the shield in place. It certainly felt like I was doing it physically. The weight of the shield pressed on my entire body, compressing my spine and making me break out into a cold sweat.

At least the civilians realized I couldn’t protect them forever. They scrambled to escape from the crash zone, clambering up buildings and even riding away on the fey monsters that had been fighting them only ten or twenty minutes before. A distant part of my brain noted the oddity of the monsters’ behavior, but this was not the time to focus on that.

Because my reservoir was empty.

Not emptying, empty. It simply hadn’t been deep enough to keep a shield this large going for more than a second or two. I didn’t even know how I was keeping the thing in place now, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The pressure was increasing. I had to do something soon, but I couldn’t just drop it. Killing myself wouldn’t do anyone any good, and Elizabeth had already casually strolled out of the crash zone. If I could somehow get both of us at the same time, that might be worth it, but otherwise…

Wait. Maybe…I squinted my eyes, trying to confirm what I thought I had seen. Maybe…

Yes! I had a plan! And it didn’t involve dropping a couple hundred tons of concrete and rebar on my head!

It was simple, really: I tipped my shield at an angle, causing the massive weight to simply slide off it.

And land directly on top of Elizabeth Greene.

It was a close thing, but my eyes were good. The bystanders had been giving the Composer a wide berth, so she was the only one in the crash zone. Well, her and a few monsters, but that was definitely an acceptable price to pay.

I collapsed to the ground, breathing heavily, not even caring that every gasp of breath filled my lungs with the concrete dust billowing up from the crash like smoke from an explosion. I didn’t have time to find fresh air. I needed to recover as quickly as possible, before—

The skyscraper exploded.

Well, okay, not really, but it certainly looked that way at first. A good ten-foot section of the well burst out violently, sending shards of concrete and rebar out like shrapnel from a frag grenade, while pushing back the existing dust in such a wide radius that it created the illusion of a much larger explosion.

Elizabeth Greene strode out of the hole in the ‘scraper, none the worse for wear.

Well, not completely. Her white dress, previously stained dark red, was now nearly black from dust and grime mixed in with the blood. Her bronze skin was gray, covered as it was in pulverized concrete, and her hair wasn’t much better. Her arm was broken in multiple places, but even as I watched she pulled it back into place and let it heal itself.

The only thing unchanged were were eyes. Gold, predatory eyes, narrowed in raw and unfiltered hatred.

“You are fast taking the fun out of this, Huntsman,” she hissed, her voice carrying far in the cold, dust-filled night air. A nearby streetlamp, one of the few that had survived the building’s impact, cast diffuse light on the scene. “I am going to enjoy cutting you into sashimi.”

I fell into a fighting stance. “Let’s see, huh?” Then I blinked and stared at my arm, at the spot where I typically conjured one of my shields, the kind I could carry around with me or attack to my arm.

It wasn’t there.

What? I concentrated harder, but my only reward was an increase in the coppery taste already in my mouth.

“Aw, what’s wrong?” Elizabeth said mockingly, grinning from ear to ear. “Is the little director having trouble with his Song?” She giggled. “You overspent yourself on protecting the rats, you stupid little hero. Your reservoir’s gonna take hours to recover. You taste that blood in your mouth? That’s from your organs liquefying, trying to supply power anyway.”

I glared at her even as she slowly stalked forward. “I don’t need it.”

She burst out laughing. “What? You don’t need a power to fight a composer? Oh, you really are insane, aren’t you?” She giggled again as she summoned those glowing orange swords of hers. They left orange streaks in the air, like the mist was clinging to the dust for a moment before dissipating. “Well, sure. Let’s see what you’ve got!”

The Composer rushed forward, closing ten feet in the space of two heartbeats, her eyes alive like fire, her blades held back at her sides for easier running, and her grin so wide I thought her jaw might fall off.

She swiped with the right blade first.

I dodged.

Dropped down to one knee, letting the sword miss me by inches. Before she could recover and counterattack with the second hand, I grabbed the wrist in question, held it away from me, moved inside her guard, and kneed her as hard as I could in the gut.

She stumbled back, hissing wordlessly, but before she could recover, I followed through with a massive kick to her sternum. It was something of a clumsy blow, but the risk proved worth it when she was sent sprawling on the ground.

“I was on the wrestling team,” I called out to her. “Back when we were kids. Signed up near the end of elementary school, you remember that?”

“STOP TALKING!” She tried to take advantage of my perceived complacency, but despite my casual demeanor, I was watching her very closely. When she tried to slash me from the ground, she telegraphed her strike. I moved inside her range again, grabbed her arm, planted my foot on her shoulder—yes, shoulder—and twisted the offending limb behind her back, breaking it, while simultaneously shoving her face into the street with my foot. She screamed in rage and pain, but her cries were muffled by her position.

“In my first practice match, one of the middle school kids—there was only one practice room for all ages, you know—challenged me. Decided to take the newcomer down a few pegs.”

Using her other arm, Elizabeth tried to roll away. But I grabbed one of her legs in both hands and snapped it, bending it backwards at the knee.

“The older student said some things I didn’t like,” I continued as her screams subsided for the moment. “You know how bullies like that are all trash talk. Said some things about my mom, about Akane. But you know the thing that really riled me up?”

Once again, Elizabeth tried to dodge away, this time by using her super speed to run past me, a direction she probably assumed I wouldn’t anticipate. But I had fought fey before, I knew how immortals thought. It probably would have worked anyway, but her broken leg slowed her down. Slowed her down enough for me to grab her neck—grinding my teeth when my shoulder nearly dislocated from grabbing something moving forty or fifty miles per hour—and slam her down into the street again with all the force I could muster.

“The thing that really riled me up was when he said things about you.”

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in reminiscing. From her position on the ground, she planted both legs—the one I had broken had healed enough by now—and shoved me off her. I kept my feet, but she was free now. Rather than fleeing again though, she howled in rage, summoned her swords, and came at me again.

“That guy died, you know.”

I dodged her first sword strike, then the second. She was angry, and making mistakes, but she was still far too good a swordswoman for me to get close. The first time had been mostly luck and good timing.

“Two of his friends, who were watching, tried to help him.”

Elizabeth switched up her tactics, moving from broad slashes to lightning-quick jabs. One of those would get me soon. I couldn’t dodge forever; she was backing me up against the wall of the fallen ‘scraper.

“They died too.”

I tried to feint under her guard again and get a few quick blows in, but her earlier berserk rage had cooled, and she was being much more careful now. One false move would get me skewered.

“I got thrown off the wrestling team, of course. I paid my retribution fee and started slaying monsters.”

“What do I care?” the Composer snarled, as she pushed her attack with renewed vigor. “What should I care about a bunch of mortal brats!?” She hopped back, giving herself more space. “I am ELIZABETH GREENE! The homicide, the GENOCIDE! Ender of men and worlds! You are just a stupid nameless HUMAN!” She charged forward, both blades held before her, ready to run me through.

I let them.

The Composer blinked, in genuine surprise, as her glowing orange blades punctured my gut, cut through my organs, and burst through the other side.

Wrong,” I hissed, as I grabbed her delicate throat and squeezed, crushing bone. “I am Derek Huntsman.”

I kicked her in the chest, sending her sprawling to the ground—and disrupting her concentration enough that her blades faded into nothingness—before stomping over and systematically breaking both her legs.

“I am the first Paragon of Domina City!” I yelled over her screams. “The first man to fight Tecumseh to a draw!” She tried to summon a single sword; I stomped on her wrist and broke her hand. “The man who faced down Asmodeus, and Thor, and and the Beast himself!” She tried to summon a blade with her other hand; before it could finish materializing, I grabbed the offending limb, planted my feet on her body for leverage, and ripped the entire arm off her body, the sound of tearing flesh and breaking bone nearly drowned out by her blood-curling screams.

“I fought Cinder, and Halifax!” I cried as I tossed the bloody limb away carelessly. “I turned down offers from Dispater, and Obould and Io and the Erlking! I was a legend by the time I was fifteen years old!”

Elizabeth tried to crawl away feebly, using the arm that was still attached to her body, gritting her teeth against the pain of a broken wrist and hand that had barely even started healing.

I leaned down close to her ear, even as I placed my hand carefully on her back, on the spot where Laura had showed me the base of her abnormally weak spine would be.

“I am Derek Huntsman,” I whispered. “Remember that name.”

Then I thrust my hand into her back, through the dress, and physically ripped out her spine.
It wouldn’t have worked on a human. Most of our fight wouldn’t have worked on a human, actually. But Elizabeth wasn’t human. Laura had been quite clear on that. She still didn’t know what she was, but she was frail. Her bones were weak, as though designed by someone who knew she would have healing abilities. Why go to all the extra effort to strengthen her skeleton when lighter bones were faster, and she could heal away any injuries anyway?

It took a minute, but I eventually finished ripping the spine out of the body, taking Elizabeth Greene’s skull with it. It was like some grisly, blood-drenched trophy on the end of a stick, but I knew it wouldn’t last if I wasn’t careful.

I tossed the spine and head to Akane. She had appeared about halfway through the fight, but wisely decided not to interfere. “When Necessarius gets here, put that on ice. Liquid nitrogen, I think Laura said was best, but if there isn’t enough of that, a frozen warcage might slow her down. She starts healing, snap a few vertebrae.” Speaking of Laura, she was walking up, flanked by two changelings—

And Simon (limping along with his girlfriend’s help), Seena, the winged fey (being supported by Seena), that Dagonite, Delphie’s nephew Leon, and Eccretia. All looking at me, as shocked as if…

Well, as shocked as if they had just watched one of their oldest friends dismember one of their other oldest friends with his bare hands.

Silver and gold, this was not going to be fun to explain to anyone.

I sighed. First things first. “Eccretia. You mind keeping an eye on this?” I indicated the headless, spineless corpse of the Composer. “I don’t think she’ll heal from it, but you never know.”

The changeling warlord nodded. She didn’t say anything, but Laura’s bodyguards moved forward to police the body. Good men.

Laura nodded to something behind me. “There’s also him to consider.”

I turned to see what she was talking about.

Oh. It was Ziba Brannigan, the Blackguard ‘sarian general. He was on his knees on the street, staring at his boss’s corpse in dull shock. He wouldn’t be any danger any time soon. But still, with that healing ability of his…

I sighed. “Flynn, if you would.”

Flynn came up behind the last Blackguard and sliced his head off with a single stroke.

I smiled—well, grimaced, really, my everything hurt too much to really smile—at the swordsman. “How’re your wounds?”

He clutched his side with a shrug. “Slapped some bandages on it, popped enough stims to pickle a gargant. I’ll live long enough to get to Clarke.”

As I nodded approvingly, Laura strode forward purposefully. “We should burn Brannigan’s body, just in case. He’s a healer, after all.”

I blinked, then nodded. “Right. Yeah, sure. You guys do that. I’m just gonna sit down for a minute, okay?”

I don’t remember anything after that. Laura later told me that I was unconscious and snoring before I even hit the ground.

Behind the Scenes (scene 209)

This is another of those I’ve been waiting for for a long time.

Scene 205 – Prædandum

PRÆDANDUM

SEENA

I had a massive headache.

I groaned as I picked myself up the floor, rubbing the side of my face that had landed on some scrap metal. Heh, if I didn’t have my warlord buffs, falling on that probably would have killed me.

Okay, thinking about that wasn’t making my headache any better. First, I needed to get my bearings. A quick glance around the room confirmed that Veda was long gone, and it also elicited another pang from my skull.

What in all Nine Hells had she shot me with? There hadn’t been any muzzle flare, just a weird, screechy noise. I could see the gun where she had abandoned it, the hastily-applied duct tape still smoking from dangerous overheating—

Still smoking. That meant I hadn’t been out for long. I might still be able to catch her!

I rushed out of the room at top speed, only pausing briefly at the door to nurse my headache. If I could just find her again—

I nearly tripped over Eric as I ran to the stairs.

“Eric!” I cried, skidding to a stop and plopping down next to him. “What are you doing? Did you see V—the fey?”

He blinked twice.

Nothing else.

“Uh,” I said slowly. “Okay, so…” I saw what looked like a snake bite on his neck. Some kind of paralysis poison, I guess. “Right. Blink once for no, twice for yes.”

He blinked twice.

“Right, good. Did the fey pass by here?”

Two more blinks.

“Did she go up or down?”

Glare.

“Sorry, sorry…did so go up?”

One blink.

“Okay, so she went down.”

Two blinks.

What else could I ask? I couldn’t think of any decent yes/no questions, and there was no way to know if he had seen anything more. It’s not like I could just ask

Oh. Duh.

“Is there anything else you can tell me?”

Another two blinks.

Wonderful. Now I had to figure out what he knew. “Okay, how about—”

A whistling sound from outside interrupted me.

I moved over to the window to see a massive crowd outside, just filling the intersection, hemmed in by monsters on every side.

And Veda, standing in front of the very building I was in right now.

I didn’t wait. I ran down the stairs as fast as my legs would take me.

I heard her yelling something to the crowd, but I couldn’t tell what. I heard the effect, though—more screaming, the sort of raw, animal scream that can only be made by a fleeing mob.

Then I heard the clapping.

And when I reached the door, I saw Elizabeth Greene.

One of my oldest friends. The girl all the boys—especially Derek—had drooled over. The sweet, innocent girl who wouldn’t even go to action movies, because she couldn’t stand to see people get hurt. The girl who handed out cheap presents like candy, and voiced a few minor characters in anime and cartoons.

The girl accused of being the Composer.

And there she was, covered in blood.

I recognized the dress she was wearing. I had bought her the dress. It had once been a fluffy white thing, designed for our warm and humid summers, but now there were only a few splotches of off-color white here and there. The rest…was just blood.

And she was grinning from ear to ear, her golden eyes glittering like stars in the night.

I had never seen eyes that dangerous. I was the warlord of a culture of assassins, and I had never seen eyes like that.

I’ve met sociopaths before. Tons of them. They tend to do well in Domina City, and even better in the Mals. A lack of empathy is a powerful weapon for an assassin.

Sociopaths have cold eyes. Not cold like ice, cold like the ocean. Not hard and dangerous, but soft and dangerous. Uncaring. They didn’t kill you because they enjoyed it, just because you were in their way.

Lizzy’s eyes weren’t soft and uncaring. They didn’t have the hardness that comes from repressing your emotions, either. They were alive. Alive with light and music and emotion. She knew exactly what she was doing.

And she loved it.

This was the Composer. I knew that now. How could she be anything else?

“An interesting plan, fey-slave,” she noted with a chuckle, presumably referring to something Veda had said. “Not as hands-on as I would prefer, but…” Her grin widened, if that was possible, and suddenly there were two glowing orange swords in her hands, leaking mist like fire. “But that’s what I’m here for.”

No hesitation.

I wasn’t armed, but it didn’t matter. My warlord buffs would be more than enough. I rushed forward as fast as lightning, not trying for anything fancy, just tackling her bodily.

She dodged to the side, avoiding my attacks while simultaneously swiping at my torso with one of her blades, and at my tail with the other. The hit to my chest burned as though it was on fire, the smoky sword cutting deeper than I would have liked or had expected and sending shocks of pain through my body.

Oddly enough, my tail didn’t hurt. It should have. I had quite a few nerve endings there, and it was quite a bit less durable than my chest and—

My tail was gone.

Not all of it, but a full foot from the tip, just gone. Lopped off like a dandelion.

Now it started hurting.

I tumbled to the ground screaming as my legs gave way in the middle of my charge, clutching at my bleeding stump of a limb.

A foot kicked me, flipping me over onto my back, but I couldn’t do anything beside desperately try to endure the pain as Lizzy look down at me with disdain.

“Pathetic,” my old friend muttered. “This is the new warlord of the Mals? I was hoping for some fun. You’re just a weak little girl.” Then she grinned, pulling back her sword to strike. “Or rather, you were.”

She was tackled before she could cut out my throat.

I had a handle on the pain now. My whole body was going numb, though I couldn’t tell whether it was from shock or willpower, so I was able to contort my body around to see who had just saved my life by attacking the most dangerous woman in the city.

Veda.

She had slammed into Lizzy at full speed, even her lightweight frame packing quite a punch at that velocity. The pair tumbled almost a dozen yards down the street, civilians and monsters alike fleeing before them. By the time they skidded to a stop, they had a nice, clear arena to fight in, surrounded by gawkers either too stupid to run or just incapable of escaping through the thick crowd.

Veda dusted herself off quickly, but I could see her wincing at her wounds. She didn’t have anything too bad, thankfully; a few scrapes on her knees and arms, plus her entire body covered in dirt, gravel and blood, but her wings were still intact.

Lizzy’s wounds were about the same, though with a nasty gash above the eye. They were even, if nothing else, and if Veda could take advantage of that head wound…that…was…closing up even as I watched…

Veda, along with the entire crowd, just stared as Lizzy brushed herself off, revealing a few more wounds that were almost done healing themselves. Blood flowed backwards into the wound, skin knit, and she was left without even a scar from her rough tumble.

“Now,” the Composer said as she summoned her swords again, grinning like a wolf. “Aitil Péine, was it? Some obscure reference to some random comic book, I assume?” She laughed wickedly. “The fey are getting soft. Since when did they name their furniture?”

Veda let out a strange, keening war-cry that probably wasn’t possible with a baseline throat, and flew at her opponent so fast she wasn’t even a blur.

Elizabeth was faster.

I barely had time to register the glowing orange swords disappearing as the bloodstained woman blurred with speed no human being should be capable of. Suddenly, Veda was impacting the nearest wall in a cloud of dust.

The fey girl stumbled out of the crater she had made, but even with my minimal combat expertise, I could tell that the one blow had finished her. Whatever her mistresses had done to her skeleton had kept it from shattering under the impact; she seemed mostly in one piece, and all her limbs still bent the right way.

Except for her wings.

Her perfect, miraculous wings were twisted and crumpled like discarded paper. As she pried herself out of the wall, one of the wings was stuck, and torn in half as she carelessly tried to pull too hard. She cried out in pain, falling to the ground in shock.

Lizzy didn’t give her the chance to recover.

Suddenly, the Composer was just there, standing in front of her with a demonic grin on her face and a glowing sword in her hand. She swung at Veda’s neck—

Gealach Tapaidh tackled her from the side.

“Stop doing that!” the golden-haired woman cried as she swiped at the new feyborn, only for him to dodge the clumsy blow. “Stupid slime, just LET ME KILL PEOPLE!”

She brought around her other sword, with far more speed and skill than the first. The Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn would not be able to dodge, not at that range.

So he blocked.

His own sword, a powerful broadsword with what looked like Gaelic runes scrawled up and down the blade, deflected her strange weapon with ease. Pretty impressive, considering how it had sliced through me like bread. I didn’t know what his weapon was made of, but it definitely wasn’t base steel.

Elizabeth screamed in rage, striking at him with a flurry of blows that would have turned me into a pureed mush. The feyborn was far better than me, though, and blocked each strike with calm, lightning efficiency. He was forced into what even I could tell was a defensive stance, and slowly backed up as he deflected the wild attack, but he was still in control. All he needed was to stay alive until something tipped the odds in his favor.

Then, as he was stepping back, his foot found a loose rock.

He slipped, and fell.

The Composer was on him like fire on dry tinder, both swords plunging down into his chest like the fangs of a snake.

The fey coughed up blood, struggled on the blades for a moment, then lay still.

“Blind moron,” Lizzy growled as she yanked out her swords, making the body jerk again. “You might have actually had a chance if your eyes worked.”

Oh, right, he had dayeyes, and it was already too dark for even baseline eyes to see reliably. Wait, he was fighting almost completely blind? Nine Hells and Nine Gates, she was right. He must be an absolute monster when in top condition.

“Well,” the bloodstained woman said blithely. “Is that everyone willing to fight back? I’ve been told I’m not thorough enough, so I want to make sure I get everyone at once before—”

She fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.

Veda struggled to her feet from where she had crawled up to the Composer below her sight range. She wiped her mouth, eyes hard and victorious. “The paralysis will keep her out for an hour.” She stumbled over to me. “Noble Nyashk, I’ll call off my monsters, please bring some of your men down—”

A glowing orange blade erupted out of her chest.

Elizabeth Greene, fully recovered in less than ten seconds, tossed my reconstructed friend aside like a rag doll.

“This is starting to become less than fun,” she growled. She glared at the crowd, as though trying to decide who to kill next, and I took the opportunity to slide across the street—biting my tongue to keep from moaning in pain—towards Veda.

I don’t know if Eccretia realized what I was trying to do or if fate just nudged her in the right direction, but she opened fire on the Composer with one of those Blue Knight guns, causing Lizzy to scream in rage and launch herself at the changeling warlord. I saw my friend take cover behind the dromo from earlier, but that wouldn’t last forever.

As I suspected, Veda was still alive, though her breathing was shallow. The wound on her chest had largely sealed up; no doubt she or my brother would be able to describe how that worked in great detail. All I knew was that she wasn’t likely to bleed out any time soon.

“Veda,” I hissed into her ear. “You awake?”

“Yes,” she muttered, so quietly I could barely hear her. “We both are.” It took me a second to realize she was referring to her partner, the princeling with the dayeyes. “But if she realizes that, it won’t last.”

“Right, I understand.” I glanced up at the fight; Eccretia was holding her own, but Lizzy was making good use of her healing ability. She dodged in order to turn wounds that would have been crippling into merely debilitating ones. And those, of course, healed up in moments.

Eccretia couldn’t keep this up for long.

I turned back to my downed friend. “The monsters. How do you control them?”

“Pheromones.”

“And you can use those without moving?”

“Of course.”

“Then can’t you order them to only attack Lizzy?”

“No,” she said, and my heart fell. “They’re dumb animals. They aren’t smart enough to distinguish individuals. Their orders are given based on scent, and location. As in ‘kill everything in this building except things that smell fey.’”

Wait, that didn’t sound right… “But what about for assassinations, or captures or whatever? How does that work?”

Veda’s eyes snapped open in surprise. “You’re right! If you hit her with target pheromones, we can order the monsters to attack her! And she won’t be able to just heal them away like the poison I bit her with!”

I nodded eagerly. Now we had a plan. “Right, great. Where do I get these target pheromones?”

She winced. “You need to chop off my arm.”

“Wait, what?”

She squirmed a little on the street. “The gland is on my wrist. I’ll set it to secrete a liquid version of the pheromones, then you just need to wipe Lizzy with it.”

I tried to scratch my head in exasperation, but only succeeded in pulling my chest wound and making me wince in pain. “Ow…okay, but do I have to cut off your arm? Why not get a towel or something?”

“Not potent enough. They’re designed to dissipate quickly if not used on someone, so that they can’t be used against us.”

“Right, yeah, that’s fair.” I looked around for something sharp, trying not to think about cutting off my friend’s limb. She’d be fine, her bosses had literally the best medicine in the entire city…

But even Clarke had barely gotten the heart working. The fey wouldn’t have the ability to regenerate limbs yet, right?

“Seena,” Veda hissed. “What’s taking so long? We don’t have much time!”

She was right. Eccretia was losing. She might be one of the most powerful baselines in the city, used to fighting against overwhelming odds, but she was still baseline, and Lizzy was something she had never trained to fight.

Then the lights came on.

All at once, the streetlights around the impromptu battlefield were switched on, nearly blinding me, and eliciting screeches of pain from other vampires as well.

“Sorry for the light,” a strong male voice called. “Need to be able to see what we’re doing.”

And there, striding through the mob like an explorer through waist-high grass, was Derek Huntsman. He had a few cuts and bruises, plus his face and clothes were splashed with monster blood, but for the most part he had survived in one piece. Akane followed a few steps behind, the blue ribbon in her hair far more vivid than usual, considering it was the only part of her not wet with blood.

Next to me, Veda chuckled. “Oh, good. I get to see him fight before we all die. At least that worked.”

I glanced at her. “You did this?”

“I can’t give the monsters specific targets, but I can tell them to stand down.”

Before I could formulate a proper response, someone else spoke.

Huntsman.”

Elizabeth had her blades out again, and was staring at the man who had been in love with her since we were kids with naked and undiluted hatred. If looks could kill, she wouldn’t need the swords.

“You are a cockroach,” she hissed, as she slowly fell down into a fighting crouch. “You keep popping up in the most annoying places.”

Eccretia, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, was taking the opportunity to retreat, and presumably find a better tactical position.

Derek fell into his own fighting stance, a simple open-palmed one that even I recognized as being one of the most basic. He didn’t think he could beat an immortal with martial arts, did he?

“Let’s hurry this up,” he said, grinning mockingly. “There are some cartoons I want to watch later.”

Elizabeth screamed and roared forward, trailing orange mist like a blazing demon.

Behind the Scenes (scene 205)

For the record, Aitil’s and Gea’s names are not references to “some random comic book.” Aitil Péine means “juniper pine,” while Gealach Tapaidh literally means “moon quick,” and might be translated by someone poetic as either “quick as the moon” or “moon’s quickness.” Maeve and Aurora just liked the sound of the names, that’s all.

Also, for the sake of nipping some of the more rampant speculation in the bud, the “Gaelic runes scrawled on the blade” of Gea’s sword is simply his full name and title. An extremely powerful Seelie Maiden with a rather childish sense of humor might compare it to a boy’s mother writing his name on his underwear.

Scene 203 – Venatio

VENATIO

SEENA

Two fey slaves and a small army of monsters.

No hesitation.

“Umbră!” I cried. “Atac pe fata!”

A shot rang out, echoing around the street, but the girl was already gone. Just disappeared. Where—

Then she was in front of us. How did she get there so fast? Quicker than lightning, she lashed out with a kick, knocking my brother through the table and scattering the rest of us in his wake.

“Simon!” Yolanda cried, rushing towards her downed boyfriend.

She had that well in hand. I would handle the fey.

I wasn’t really sure what to call her, since she clearly wasn’t a fey fey, but that was something to worry about later. I dashed forward with the strength of my warlord buffs, whipping around my steel-like tail to—

Miss. Again.

How had she dodged so fast?

Then I saw them. Translucent green, like a cicada’s, sprouting from her back and fluttering in the breeze.

Wings.

Actual, functional WINGS.

They were three pairs of insect wings, similar to what you sometimes saw on a traditional mythological fairy. Even as I watched in stunned fascination, they blurred, beating too fast to keep track, sending the woman back a few steps and holding her hovering a few inches off the ground.

“Seena…” I heard behind me. “…you have a tail?”

I turned to regard my brother. “Yes, just…I’ll explain later, all right?” The changelings were already getting him, his girlfriend, and Leon out of danger. Steve and Eric were running in the other direction with Laura, while Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam were fending off another horde of smaller monsters I hadn’t even noticed coming from another direction.

Lily was huddled in a corner, eyes squeezed shut and hands over her ears. She didn’t like fighting, so that was only to be expected. At least the fey never attacked her. Well, they used to never attack her. What if that rule had changed as well?

Nine Hells, where were my soldiers? “Umbră! Este timpul pentru a lupta!”

There was an explosion from one of the nearby ‘scrapers, about where the earlier shot had come from. I peered up, cursing the twilight, and saw what looked like pojoes milling around in the flames.

“I-mi cer scuze, onorat nobil,” my Mal bodyguards called. “Dar suntem OCUPATI!”

“Seena,” I heard again from behind me. “Listen.”

“Not a good time, Simon!”

“No, it’s—Nine Hells, get over here!

His tone brooked no argument, so I backed up, keeping my eye on the fey and her monsters, until I was next to my brother.

I looked down at him, but he seemed mostly fine, with Yolanda tending his injuries. He couldn’t be dying, not from something as small as getting thrown through a table. But he clearly wasn’t in the best condition to begin with…

His eyes were strong, at least. “The winged girl. Just hit her.”

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, that never occurred to me.”

“No, I mean…even with three pairs of wings, she has to be really lightweight in order to fly like that. I mean, seriously. I doubt she even has a real skeleton any more, probably got it replaced by cartilage…” he coughed, spitting up blood. That wasn’t good. What if he was bleeding internally? “She probably weighs like, fifty pounds. Just hit her. She’ll crumple like wet cardboard.”

Okay. That was actually good advice. That was something I could use.

“You guys keep them safe,” I told the changelings. “I’ll handle Miss Butterfly.”

But Eccretia pulled out her rifle with a hard look. “I am far from helpless, Noble Nyashk. I can provide support.”

Simon gurgled. “Noble what?

We both ignored him. “How do I know you won’t shoot me in the back?”

“You don’t. Now hurry up before Derek and them get overrun, or we’ll have to fight on two fronts.”

I glanced at the other end of the street, where Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam were fighting, and saw she was right. They were doing very, very well, especially considering all four were baseline, but they were facing more monsters than us. We needed to finish off the two leaders quickly, then join them.

“Where are your changelings?” I grunted as I punched through a yokvel trying to claw at my face.

“With your Mals, I expect,” she responded in a crisp and professional tone as she fired off a few more shots, focusing on the deathmarked. “Holding off the third group.”

A few more quick punches and some swipes with my tail scattered the rest of the cats. “My nightstalkers aren’t front line fighters. What about yours?”

“Competent enough in most situations, and I’d normally say more than a match for any fey monsters.” She fired again, getting one of the ape-things in the eye, causing it to roar in anger. “But…”

“But the rules have changed,” the winged girl said as she fluttered in front of us.

She slashed at me with her open hand, which I barely managed to dodge even with the speed of my warlord buffs. In theory, she shouldn’t be strong enough to deal any meaningful damage to me. In practice, I didn’t want to find out what weapons the fey had decided to give their newest slave.

Still, I needed to keep her away from the baselines. I bull rushed forward, a move she dodged easily, but it had the intended effect of setting her up for Eccretia’s attack. The changeling fired off a few rounds from her Blue Knight ZF987, testing the fey’s response.

Our winged opponent dodged again, which was also anticipated. I swept my tail around, getting the crazy chick in the legs, sending her sprawling.

I had hoped that she would land on her wings and maybe damage them, but no such luck. She managed to land on her hands, and when I rushed forward again to finish her off, she zipped off, an inch above the ground, dodging my strike by a hair.

Before I could give meaningful chase, one of the deathmarked jumped me with a bellow, the tortured ape-thing swinging at me with a bony fist. I knew how powerful they were, so I dodged the first strike, then the second, and then—

And then I remembered that I was a warlord.

I dodged under the ape’s third strike, coming up inside its guard, and grabbed its wrist with my tail to keep it from grabbing me. Then, I unleashed a flurry of blows to its chest, sending it staggering back with a dozen cracked and broken ribs.

While it was reeling in pain, I shoved it aside; there was little point in trying to actually kill a deathmarked with anything short of high explosives, warlord or not.

The fey was upright now, floating a few feet off the ground. I leaped on top of the infernal dromo, dodged its tail, and then launched myself at the fey.

I missed.

“Nine Hells,” I spat as I hit the ground at a roll. The monsters piled on top of me, but they got in each other’s way too much to do any real damage. I punched out a few more furless cats, tossed one crawler at another, and—

Where had she gone?

I had lost track of her while I was fighting the monsters. Most of them were dead or dying now, but they had served their purpose, distracting me from the fey. Had she escaped entirely? And where was the other one, the male? I hadn’t seen him since the fight started. I—

I heard a massive, clicking screech behind me.

Oh. Right. The dromo.

I turned to regard the beast. In most important respects, it was a giant scorpion about the size of a car, with four pairs of legs, two massive claws, and an arching tail with a poison stinger, all covered in thick black carapace.

Except it had been painted with red stripes.

The beast screeched again, spraying fire from its dripping maw.

So, yeah: Infernal dromo.

The fire didn’t get anywhere close to me; it wasn’t actually attacking yet, just letting me know it was angry. I backed up slowly, the instinctive reaction making me feel better even though I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Fire was only one half of the infernal package; the other half was aggression.

As expected, instead of taking my retreat as a sign of a competitor leaving its territory like most natural predators would, it screamed in triumph, recognizing my fear and sensing a weakness.

It charged forward.

So did I.

I didn’t have any specific training for dealing with dromos, but they’re not too hard to figure out. Stay away from the claws, the tail, and for the infernal variety, the mouth. The only problem was that they had reflexes like greased lightning, and would instantly skewer you if you made the mistake of jumping onto their back.

But I was a warlord.

I dodged the first strike from the tail, batting it aside with one hand and using the other to attack the tail directly, jabbing it with an open palm stronger than steel. The monster screeched in pain and bucked, trying to throw me off. I just redoubled my attack, trying to break the tail in half.

I managed to break through the carapace—

And was immediately reminded that this was an infernal dromo.

Boiling hot blood spurted out of the wound, searing my hand and missing my face by inches. I was forced to release the tail to dodge, which proved to be a mistake. The stinger stabbed at me again—blood spurting out again as the tail flexed—and I was only able to avoid it by jumping off onto the street.

I turned to face the beast again, not quite sure how I was supposed to—

An explosion burst up from beneath it, flipping it over with an unearthly screech.

And there was Eccretia, pulling another grenade from her belt even as I watched.

“Go after the fey, you idiot!” she cried as she pulled the pin and threw it. “I’ll handle the monsters!”

There wasn’t time to argue. I ran off, searching for the woman even as another explosion rocked the street behind me. Where was she? There was her mount, some four-legged monster horse thing that I couldn’t identify, and there was the man, riding into battle against Derek and the others, slashing with a sword.

But where was the woman?

The sun was mostly below the horizon by now, so my sight was much better than it had been at the start of this fight. I scanned the battlefield, trying to find her, but to no avail. I had a hunch she wasn’t the type to flee, especially not after making a big entrance, so she had to be hiding out somewhere, preparing.

Derek, Akane, Flynn, and Adam had that end of the street bottled up, which involved Akane swordfighting the male. My brother, Eccretia’s two changelings, and Yolanda and Leon seemed to be relatively safe, cowering behind a hasty barricade of tables. Lily hadn’t moved, but the monsters were ignoring her. Steve and Eric were trying to break into one of the nearby buildings for some reason.

Where was she?

Where?

If I were a delusional sociopath, where would I be? Not up in the building where my shadows had been hiding; they and the rest of Eccretia’s changelings were still fighting. They would have called if the fey showed up there.

Not with any of the monsters, not fighting anyone…

Wait, why were Steve and Eric trying to break into one of the buildings?

I rushed over to them—punching the recovering deathmarked as I passed—and skidded to a stop at their side.

“Boys,” I said by way of greeting. “Explain fast.”

“Steve says he say the winged girl go in here,” Eric reported. “I didn’t, but it’s the best bet. But the door’s locked, and we can’t get it open. I think it might be welded from the other side—”

I reared back and kicked the solid steel door, knocking it off its hinges with a single blow.

“You two stay out here,” I insisted. “I’ll deal with the fey.”

“No,” Eric hissed, grabbing my arm. “You have nighteyes, and she knows it! You need someone who’s not vulnerable to light!”

I shook him off. “You’ll just get in the way. Stay here.”

The Dagonite glared at me. “You know I’m going to ignore you. Why even bother saying it?”

“Because this way, when you get shot in the face, I can say I told you so,” I growled as I brushed past him.

To my surprise, a young kemo—he ran past too fast for me to identify his subculture—screamed by me, followed by a few more kids. It took me a minute to realize they were probably fleeing from the fey.

As I plunged deeper into the gray corridors of the apartment building, running into more and more fleeing civilians, I quickly realized that I had no idea where I was going. All the halls looked alike, and the fey wasn’t really leaving a clear path to follow.

I grabbed a vampire as he rushed past me, causing him to scream and flinch back in fright.

“Young drake,” I said with as much politeness as I could muster considering that he was pummeling me ineffectually with his weak fists. “Calm down. I need to find the fey.”

To my surprise, he did calm down, and pretty quickly too. Probably realized pissing off a Noble wouldn’t end well for him, whether he was in my subculture or not.

“She was on floor twelve a few minutes ago,” he managed without stammering. “She’s forcing everyone out.”

I blinked. “Out? What do you mean, out?”

He shrugged. “She’s knocking down doors and throwing people out of their apartments. Scaring everyone.”

Huh. That…was weird. Could she be trying to avoid innocent bystanders? No, neither one of us were armed. It would be child’s play to keep our duel from causing too much collateral damage, if that were actually her purpose. No, there was something else going on here…

I released the young vampire, done with him, and he ran off gratefully while I pondered this new information.

Well, whatever she was planning, I needed to find her first. Floor twelve, he had said? That was nine floors up. I had to hurry before the trail went cold again.

One of the side benefits of the warlord package I hadn’t really noticed before now was increased endurance. I ran up nearly a dozen sets of stairs at full speed and wasn’t even breathing hard by the time I reached the top. Lot better than the days when I could barely jog a block without gasping for breath.

Not that it mattered. The twelfth floor was empty by the time I got there, all the doors open to empty apartments, the inhabitants having all fled. I guess the only option was to keep climbing. Maybe she was expecting reinforcements on the roof or something? I’d have to—

Wait. One door wasn’t open.

The lock was broken, but otherwise the door was unharmed; still firmly attached to the frame and tightly closed.

If that wasn’t suspicious, I didn’t know what was. I moved as carefully and quietly as I knew how, sidling up to the door and easing it open without a sound.

The reason this particular apartment had been spared was immediately obvious. The living room I could see from the door didn’t look like a home so much as a machine shop. Countless tools lined the shelves, with blueprints pinned to the walls like posters and spare parts scattered around like a child’s toys.

The fey I was searching for was tinkering at a workbench in front of the window, her back to me. I couldn’t tell exactly what she was doing, but the simplest answer would be assembling a bomb. That would be the easiest and most dangerous thing an amateur could build quickly.

I quietly grabbed something big and heavy off the floor—looked like one of those miniature fusion cell things—took careful aim, and threw it at the back of the fey’s head with all my might.

She dodged.

Nine Hells, she must have seen the reflection in the window. I leaped forward, arms outstretched and tail ready, in order to try and take advantage of the limited space to keep her from dodging past me with those stupid wings of hers.

Then I noticed she had something in her hands and froze.

It was not a bomb.

I didn’t know what it was. It looked like some unholy cross between a boom box, a music player, and a small metal bucket, all married together with a liberal application of duct tape, with far too many wires poking out every which way.

But it had a trigger.

“Sorry, Noble Nyashk,” the fey said pityingly. “It didn’t have to be this way. But the Wild Hunt must go on.”

Then all the clues fell into place.

Not the babbling about the Wild Hunt, whatever that was. But the genuine apologetic tone, from a fey-slave, who was scarily competent with machines…

“Veda?” I whispered. “Is that you?”

She grimaced, and fired.

Behind the Scenes (scene 203)

The “miniature fusion cells” Seena describes are at approximately the level of 3D printers in the real world. That is, they are available to civilians, but prohibitively expensive, frustrating to use, and not particularly reliable. In Domina City, MFC’s go for about ten thousand dollars each and usually die after about a day. Not that it matters, but the owner of the apartment built that one himself.