My name…is Nyashk.
Nine Hells, it still felt weird. I mean, I had only officially been a warlord for three hours now, having finished my last treatment this morning, but I had figured I’d be more used to it now. The feeling of power. Of easy grace, and control. My entire body felt light as a feather, like I had shed a hundred pounds, even though the opposite had happened.
I had made my decision on Thursday, without telling my stupid brother. It was Monday now, the fifteenth of October, and I hadn’t had any missed messages from him during the meantime.
I was starting to get worried.
“Rumors are the Composer escaped on Friday,” Moloch, the culture’s viceroy, reported. “Details are scarce, however, and Butler hasn’t released an announcement yet.”
Zepar drummed his tail against the floor. “Hm…that’s something on its own. Normally, it would mean there was no truth to these rumors at all, but with something this important, he might want to keep it under wraps.”
“He didn’t do that with the screamers,” I noted, only half paying attention to the conversation.
“True,” my warlord—my fellow warlord—said with a sigh. “I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.”
“We still haven’t received any word from Necessarius regarding Grand’s assassination team,” the viceroy noted.
That grabbed my attention. I had been the one who insisted that we needed to at least attempt to kill the Composer, even though I was still a little worried Lizzy might not be it. “No word at all? Not even any confirmation that they’re still alive?”
“Not even any confirmation that they even got within a hundred yards of their target,” Moloch clarified. “But since their mission coincides with the Composer’s supposed escape…” he shrugged.
“They’re almost certainly dead,” I said flatly.
“If you feel optimistic, we can assume they killed Greene, disposed of the body, and now everyone thinks she’s dead,” Zepar put in hopefully.
I rolled my eyes. “That’s a few spoonfuls too much optimism for me, thanks.”
He grinned sadly. “Yes, I expected as much.” He nodded to the viceroy. “Log them as KIA. If we turn out to be mistaken, so be it.”
“Yes, Honored Noble.”
“Did any of them have any close family?” I asked. Their kids didn’t count, since they had all been put up for adoption, but if they had any surviving brothers or sisters…
But the serious-faced vampire just shook his head. “None that I know of. I already checked their wills; they left what little they had to the culture.”
Zepar scratched his chin. “And what does that consist of?”
Moloch shrugged. “Nine-hundred and eighty-three bucks and a couple decent guns.”
“Yes, well, put it all in the safe. Unless there’s anything else we need to discuss?”
“No, Honored Nobles.” He bowed as he left. “I will take my leave.”
Once the door closed behind the viceroy, I was able to let my breath out. “Finally. That guy makes me feel like a clown.”
“We hired him for his ability to stay calm and serious in any situation. You’ll get used to him, and start wondering how you ever survived without him.”
“I’m sure I will,” I muttered drily, not really in the mood to debate the point. “Are we done for today? I have something I need to do as soon as possible.”
Zepar raised an eyebrow. “Outside Maladomini? You’ll stand out a bit, with your new modifications.”
I gnashed my teeth, nearly slashing my tongue to ribbons in the process. “I’ll wear a cloak.”
“It’s also mid-morning.”
“I have daygoggles.”
“That’s not really my point.”
“Look, I’ll be back in an hour—two, tops. And then we can have a long meeting over tea and dumplings.” I blinked, realizing something. “Actually, we’re supposed to be equals. So I can leave whenever I want.”
The dark-skinned warlord nodded. “True, true, but I can advise you.” He shrugged. “Still, you have a point, and I think we’re about done. I was going to go to sleep soon anyway.”
I helped him clean up his tea set before hurrying out of the building. Vampires bowed, if only slightly, as I passed, and scurried to get out of my way.
It all felt so weird.
Maladomini was in West Middle, while the place I was going was in the corner of South Middle, so it was too far to walk. I could have commandeered a car from the motor pool, but…no. It just wasn’t something I was comfortable with yet.
Even on the light rail, it still took over an hour. It was only about twenty-five miles away as the crow flies, but the rail system turned it into seventy or so.
Still, I reached the skyscraper a little after nine, so it wasn’t too bad. Of course, for a vampire this was about the same as nine at night instead of nine in the morning, but the modification regimen over the last few days had screwed up my sleep cycle, so I felt as refreshed as any diurnal person.
Besides, I wasn’t visiting vampires anyway.
Well. No more reason to delay. I wrapped up my cloak, tucked it under one arm, and walked in the door.
The demon behind the front desk had a dozen bright pink horns arranged around her shaved head like a crown, matching the neon pink braid sprouting from the back of her head and draped casually over her shoulder.
“Welcome to Arhestanots, the Fleshworks,” she greeted me cheerfully. “Capital of the sibriex, leading the city into the future. Is there anything I can help you find?” If she was surprised by my appearance, she showed no sign. I suppose when you work for a toy-oriented culture, it takes a lot to faze you.
“I’m looking for Simon Lancaster,” I said without preamble. “He joined the culture a few months ago.”
“One moment, please.” She tapped at her computer for about two minutes, before frowning.
“I”m sorry,” she said slowly. “I don’t have any record of him in our system.”
I stared at her through my daygoggles, sure that I had heard her wrong. “That’s impossible.”
“Yes, it is,” she muttered, still frowning. “I know Simon. He hasn’t done much since he got here, but he should still…” She bit her lip. “I remember he came in a few nights ago. Friday, maybe? There should at least be a timestamp for that.” She clicked through something, and her frown deepened. “Nothing.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means something has gone very wrong.” She reached for the phone. “Give me just a minute.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “You might want to hurry. I’m not known for my patience.”
Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. Within ten minutes, the Unfleshed Lord himself was striding out of the elevator.
I had heard of him. Everyone had. The warlord who refused to keep the same toys for more than a week, switching faces and limbs almost as often as clothing.
Today, he didn’t look too odd, all things considered. A pale, hairless skinny thing, more like a corpse left in the sun too long than a man. Ugly, but not some jaw-dropping miracle of the toy maker. His pure white suit was stranger than his body.
His eyes were strong though, and they measured me up carefully. “How may I help you?”
“I am looking for Simon Lancaster. Your secretary says the database has no information on him.”
“Yes,” the demon said. “That is correct. I deleted it myself.”
The bluntness of his reply set me back a bit. “That’s…surprising. Why would you do something like that? If nothing else, I’d imagine you’d want to keep his toy receipt on file.”
“Lancaster committed grievous crimes against the culture. I refuse to remember him any more than I need to.” He turned to go. “If that is all, you know the way out.”
I grabbed his shoulder, my nails unintentionally drawing blood. I still didn’t quite understand the strength of my new toys. But I didn’t let go.
I was getting a very, very bad feeling in the pits of my stomach.
“That is an internal matter.”
I grit my razor-sharp teeth. Fine. “If Simon has been excommunicated, then where is he now? I need to speak with him immediately.”
The warlord glared at the blood staining his suit, then turned his gaze to me. “I really couldn’t tell you, and I wouldn’t care if I did know. Now unhand me.”
Instead, I tightened my grip. “You know something, Nhang. Speak, unless you want to become known as the Flayed Lord.”
The sibriex hissed in rage and slipped out of my grasp, losing a few chunks of flesh in the process.
“You threaten me, in my own House?” He stood up straighter, his eyes livid. “I am Narek Nhang, Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym. Power of the sibriex, and the Unfleshed Lord. By all Nine Hells, who do you think you are?”
I don’t like bullies. And I hate bullies who use money and influence as their weapons.
And now, for the first time in my life, I had the power to strike back.
I didn’t hesitate. I whipped out my tail, a ten-foot long muscle that was only about two inches thick, but still strong enough to lift up the demon warlord by his neck. I was still getting used to the damn thing—and had been tripping over it all morning—but I think I finally understood why Zepar had insisted on putting the majority of my modifications into it.
“I am Nyashk,” I explained to the sputtering little man. “Noble of Maladomini. Seventh of the Black Crypts.” I narrowed my eyes (realizing a little late that my daygoggles undercut the effect a bit) and squeezed tighter. “Mine is a bloodline of assassins and killers. Yours is one of engineers and scientists. Both of us have our place.”
I pulled him close, until his face was inches from my own.
“And right now, yours is to tell me where he is.”
He glared at me defiantly…before looking away.
“Dead,” he muttered. “Dropped down the garbage chute Thursday night. The ghouls have picked his bones clean, by now.”
I tightened my tail around his throat. “LIAR! Tell the truth!”
He didn’t answer—he was too busy sputtering for breath. Just a few more seconds, and that wouldn’t be a problem anyway.
I couldn’t bring myself to care.
Because he wasn’t lying. Not that I could tell, anyway.
My brother couldn’t be…
Four days ago I had been…what? Nine Hells, four days ago I had just decided to become the warlord Zepar wanted. Four days ago, I had gone under the knife.
Four days ago, my brother had died.
If I had made the decision sooner, would I have been able to save him?
I loosened my tail, letting the pale warlord fall to the floor, where he choked down great gasps of air. The secretary, I noticed, didn’t rush to his side.
Parts of me were shutting down. That’s what it felt like, anyway. Like all the parts of me that cared about Simon were just…turning off the lights. Protecting me from what was happening.
“I realize this was an unprovoked attack,” I heard myself say in a dead voice. “However, considering your own crimes, I am willing to call this even.” I eyed the man on the ground, rubbing his neck gingerly as he looked up at me with trepidation. “But if you ever make a move against Maladomini, I will have you and everyone you have ever met killed without hesitation.”
I turned on my heel and stomped out, desperate to get out of range of their cameras before the tears started flowing.
It was a lie, of course.
I was going to put a kill order on that stupid little shit the second I got back.
Preferably, before Zepar could wake up and stop me.
Behind the Scenes (scene 163)
“Black Crypts” is a name for vampire domains, like angel Heavens and demon Hells. But like the kemo grounds, the word is not quite as widespread as the others. It normally only comes up in formal situations like this.