Tag Archives: Simon Lancaster

Scene 311 – Scobis

SCOBIS

SIMON

I grunted as I helped shift a bit of rubble to the side. It was a small bit; I wasn’t very strong these days. But I still wanted to help. Shendilavri hadn’t been hit that hard in the American attack, but it had been hit. Just a few stray rockets and one or two squads of soldiers. Since the domain was already basically rubble, I had assumed it wouldn’t be a big deal. But it turned out that a couple of the secret entrances to the underground succubus lair had been destroyed.

So that meant shifting rubble.

I leaned against a building, panting in the dust-filled air. My scars screamed at me, but I fought to ignore them. I knew from experience that despite the pain, they never started bleeding again. Titania and Eisheth Zenunim had done their work well.

Someone put a water bottle in front of my face. “Hell of a way to start the year, huh?”

I took the bottle and drank half of it in one long pull. It was as cold as ice, and I swore I could feel it washing away the dust coating the inside of my throat.

The man who had given it to me was an incubus with red skin and purple horns. No tail, though, and he was wearing normal clothing. There were a lot of demons like him picking through the rubble, trying not to look like they were affiliated with the succubus culture. People still remembered Malcanthet too well.

But we had an excuse to be out here. We weren’t that far from the Gate, so there was a lot of damage that needed to be repaired. Most of the damage was superficial, but it still needed to be handled. Rubble moved, bodies collected and recycled, that sort of thing. The Rampage had been worse.

I realized the incubus was still waiting for a response. “Might be a good way to start the year. Cooperation. Working together.” It was the second of January, so we had been doing this for about a week now. Well, the city had been doing this for a week. The succubi had been hiding in Shendilavri for most of that time.

The incubus frowned, looking past me. I turned to see some hellions glaring at us while they patrolled around the ruins. They didn’t like anybody poking at Shendilavri too much. Everyone was worried that Malcanthet had left some trick or trap behind. I couldn’t tell if they thought we were idiot kids poking a hornet’s nest or Riven working for the Queen.

They started towards us, probably planning to push us around a bit. Maybe kill one or two of us to scare the rest off. I wiped my brow—scratching the scars there—while the incubus got ready to run. I knew I’d never be able to outrun hellions. I was too weak.

Before they got too close, they were intercepted by another group of hellions. The two groups argued for a minute, and then the first group scowled and marched off in the opposite direction. The leader of the second group turned, nodded to me, and walked off as well.

He had a very prominent eye patch. Though I couldn’t see the color of the eye he had uncovered, I knew it would be a dayeye. It was mid-morning, far too bright to use his nighteye.

“You think that’s him?” the incubus said. “Julian Keller?”

I shook my head and worked on moving some more small pieces of concrete. “Nah, that’s probably just one of his devils. I hear a lot of the Kellions have started doing the half dayeye, half nighteye thing.”

“Huh,” the incubus said. “I’m surprised more people don’t use dayeyes. Seems like they’d be useful.”

“That’s because you’ve never used them,” Yolanda said, walking up. She was covered in a thin layer of dust so that her entire body looked gray. She wiped off her face with a wet rag, then tossed it over her shoulder. “Any and all shadows are as deep as darkest night to dayeyes. They’re really not worth the trouble unless you have the ability to glow.”

The incubus shrugged and resumed working.

“What happened to you?” I asked as Yolanda kissed me. She tasted like dirt, but I ignored it.

She rolled her eyes. “Some idiot dropped half the building about two feet away from me. Stirred up enough dust to choke the whole city.” She chuckled. “Eisheth is giving him an earful right now.”

I smiled too, though the action tugged at my scars. I had been on the receiving end of Eisheth’s lectures more than once. It was nice for someone else to have to deal with it for once. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”

She started to shift some rubble. “We got lucky all around. The war could have hit us a lot harder than it did. No one was defending Shendilavri. What if the Americans had decided to use this place as a base?”

I chuckled. “They barely got five feet from the gate! If they had broken through the lines, I’m sure we would have fled. But they didn’t, so it’s fine.” I shook my head. “You worry too much.”

“Yeah,” she said, grunting as she moved a slab of sheetrock. “But what about next time?”

“Next time?” I said with a frown.

She nodded. “Sooner or later, they’ll figure out our strengths and work around them. They’ll be back, mark my words.”

“That’s what the peace talks are for,” the incubus said. I had forgotten he was still there. “The reason Sargeras and the rest of them went off. You don’t have to worry. They’ll keep this from blowing up again.”

Yolanda didn’t look convinced.

I chuckled. “C’mon. Worst case scenario, they can kill the American diplomats. Sure, the war will still restart, but at least they’ll have cut the head off the snake.” I thought about it. “Maybe they’ve done that already.”

“That would probably just make things worse.”

“Which is why the Mother Monster won’t let them,” the incubus said. I should really figure out his name, but now we had been talking so long that it would be awkward to ask. “She knows what she’s doing.”

“Huh,” I said. “I didn’t know she was involved.”

“She wasn’t in the procession leaving the city, but she was mentioned in the press release.”

“All right then.” I nodded to Yolanda. “I’m with him. Lilith will handle things.”

She wasn’t impressed. “And if they try to take her hostage?”

I chuckled. “Now you’re just being silly. If they take her hostage, the ambassadors will be able to tear them apart with clear consciences. There’s no way that the Americans would be that stupid.”

She brushed her hair back, then looked at her dusty hand as if she had forgotten. She shook her head and looked up. “I know. Really. I know I’m just being paranoid. But, it’s just…” She sighed. “I can’t do anything to help. So I worry.”

I tossed aside the rubble I was working on and put my arms around her shoulders. “You know what you need? Ice cream. And a shower.” I looked down at my clothing. I wasn’t as bad, but still dusty and sweaty. “I think we both do, actually.”

Yolanda managed a smile. “We cleared away the rubble from one of the entrances. That’s actually how I ended up so dusty. We can go down there and find… something to do.”

I rolled my eyes as we walked away. “Fun as that sounds, I think ice cream would do you better than sex right now.”

“Blasphemy!” the incubus called after us. Wow, he had good ears.

“Private conversation!” I called back, in a joking tone.

“Hey, you’re leaving me to do all the work alone! I get to make a few jokes as you go!”

I shrugged. Fair enough.

Yolanda took the glove off my hand. At first I thought she just wanted to hold hands, but I soon realized she was inspecting my scars.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Nothing broke open.”

She nodded and bumped her shoulder against mine. “I know. I should trust Titania more. It’s just…” She sighed. “She keeps saying you’re too weak to use the toy box again. But I’ve seen it used on coma patients. You’re up and walking around, that should be more than enough.”

I plastered a smile on my face. “It’s no big deal.”

She looked at me sideways. “I see the way you wince every time you move. You’re good at hiding it, but it’s there.”

I was silent for a moment.

“Shouldn’t I have stopped noticing by now?” I whispered. “I don’t notice gravity weighing me down or my heart beating in my chest. But no matter how I move, my scars pinch and ache.” I looked down at my ungloved hand. “It’s like they didn’t heal me. They just glued me back together, and at any moment I could fall apart.” I concentrated, and my hand was wreathed in shadow despite the sun shining overhead. “Why couldn’t I get some healing ability instead of this? This stupid little cantrip?” I dismissed the darkness and smiled wanly at Yolanda. “I’m sorry for the rant.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s fine. I understand what it’s like to have a power that’s… underwhelming.”

I smiled. We still hadn’t figured out exactly what her power was. When she activated it, she seemed to burst into electricity and reappear somewhere else. But she had no control over it. She didn’t even remember what happened while she was electricity. It was like a randomized teleport with a laughably short range.

“We’ll figure yours out eventually,” I said. “I checked Fundie, and there are support groups for people who need help figuring out their powers.” We ducked down to enter a small tunnel that looked like it didn’t lead anywhere. “Maybe you should look into one of those.”

“They’re scams,” she said. “Trying to lock down new and interesting powers for use in… whatever they’d be useful in.” She smiled at me. “The angels and the vampires would both kill to get a hold of you.”

I sighed. I knew they would. “Thankfully, nigerkinesis isn’t really that rare, relatively speaking. They’ll find someone else.”

She quirked her head. “Is that right?”

“Yeah, a lot of vampires have—”

“No, I mean the name. Nigerkinesis. You’re not really manipulating shadows, you’re making shadows.”

“So what would that be? I’m terrible at Greek. I barely even know the basic prefixes and suffixes.”

“Nigergenesis, I think. That might be Latin.”

We turned the corner that made the tunnel look shorter than it was. “I know genesis was from the Bible,” I said. “Was that first written in Latin or Greek?”

“Wasn’t Rome conquered by Greece at around that time?”

“I thought it was the other way around.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. Why would the Romans take the gods of the people they conquered?”

“Apparently they did that a lot. Appropriating things from conquered cultures.”

She shook her head. “I guess that makes sense. But I’ve never seen anything like that before. Did the lupes take anything from the cherves when they conquered them? Anything besides their domain, I mean.”

I smirked. “The cherves have been conquered six times. You’re going to have to refresh my memory.”

“Three times,” she said.

I frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Veda was a cherve, remember?”

“Oh, right.” We turned the last corner and passed into the underground cavern of Shendilavri itself. “I thought she didn’t really care about it, though. That’s why she gave it up so easily.”

“All I know is she once gave me a lecture on the history of the cherves.” She paused as we walked down the street towards our apartment. “I wonder if she’s in New York right now.”

“What, with the fey?” I asked. I shook my head. “I don’t think so. You saw the procession. Maeve just had the stealth, the tank, and the other one with her. I guess since Veda is a Prince, she’s too important for something so minor as guard duty.”

“And spying.”

I chuckled. “When has Veda ever been a good spy? She’s an engineer.”

Yolanda smiled. “Okay, that’s fair. It took her what, ten minutes to blow her cover during the Wild Hunt?”

“That’s what Seena said.” I thought back to the last time I had seen her. “I wonder what she’s doing right now.”

Yolanda raised an eyebrow and pushed open the door to our apartment. “I don’t think we should worry about your sister right now.”

I frowned. “But she could be anywhere. Doing anything. She could be in trouble, or causing trouble, or—”

Yolanda put a finger to my lips. “I meant, we shouldn’t worry about your sister right now.”

She closed the door behind us and started pulling me towards the shower.

I smirked. “Oh. Well, that I can understand.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 311)

To be completely honest, I didn’t know what to do with Simon for the longest time. I knew I wanted his plot to parallel Seena’s, but I also knew I didn’t want them both to become warlords. Before the Balor Reconstruction, I was briefly considering killing Seena off, but I changed my mind. I think this works much better, with him falling as she rises. But at the same time, he is happier than she is, because he has far fewer responsibilities.

As for Simon and the toy maker, that’s a bit complicated. I can’t go into it without a ridiculous amount of technobabble, but the short version is that the procedure that saved his life is fragile. Day to day living won’t pull his wounds apart, but the way the toy maker works means it might. Like solvent for a glue. It’s possible that Titania and Eisheth Zenunim could work fast enough to save him using the toy box, but it’s also quite possible that they wouldn’t. It’s simply not worth the risk.

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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 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 206 – Rector

RECTOR

SIMON

Yolanda’s hands shook as she fussed over the bloodmaker bandages wrapped around my chest. “Just hold on, you’re going to be fine…”

“You’re right, I am,” I assured her. “That stim did the trick. My bones are knitting even as we speak.”

She glanced behind her, out the door of the cafe that was being guarded by Eccretia’s changelings. “I’m not…not so sure. All those monsters outside—”

“Derek and Akane are professional monster slayers,” I reminded her soothingly. “Plus Anders is good with those guns, right? Between them and the changelings, the fey don’t stand a chance.”

“Seena and Eric followed the fey-girl into a building,” Steve said, his habitual grin a little strained. “That means they’ll have this wrapped up nice and quick.”

One of the changelings at the door—Domothon, I think—shook his head. “Monsters are the least we have to worry about now. Noble Nyashk is strong, but she’s not a fighter. And Eccretia won’t last long either.”

I grunted in pain as I readjusted myself where I was lying on the ground. “Somebody needs to explain why people are calling my sister a warlord. And why she has a tail, while we’re at it.” Before the changeling could answer, my brain caught up with the rest of what he had said. “Wait one second. What do you mean by ‘least we have to worry about?’”

The pale, golden haired changeling looked at me oddly. “Uh, the Composer? She’s not known for leaving survivors.”

Everyone hiding in the cafe stared at him in shock. “What!?

He flinched back from the outburst. “Didn’t I mention that? Greene is fighting the fey-girl.” He looked out the window. “Ny—Seena is down—” My heart skipped a beat. “—but she’ll survive. Just needs a new tail.”

Laura appeared from somewhere behind me, where she had been scrounging through the cafe for supplies. “I need your radio. I have tactical information your warlord needs.”

The other changeling, Ferenil, raised a finger. “Point of order, she’s technically not a warlord. That’s—”

Laura gave him a glare almost as good as one of Derek’s.

“—a sore…point…” the dark-skinned changeling trailed off, then sheepishly handed her his radio.

“Eccretia,” Laura barked into the device immediately. “Can you hear me? I have intel for you.”

“Medina?” the not-warlord’s voice crackled over the speaker. “How did you get this channel? If you tortured my men—”

“And I thought I had trust issues,” Laura muttered. “No, they gave it to me. They’re both still alive. You’re planning to fight Elizabeth, I take it?”

There was a slight pause on the other end, then Eccretia was all business. “Yes. You got advice?”

“Don’t let her get in close. She’s a horror with those swords. She has a number of other powers as well, but the swords are her favorite. She’ll probably use super-speed too. Two things about that: First, her mind isn’t sped up with the rest of her, so she can pretty much just run in a straight line. Second, she can only use one power at a time, so the swords will disappear right before she uses the speed.”

“One power at a time…” Eccretia mused. “Wait, that means her healing—”

“Is always in place,” Laura interrupted. “Always. It works differently than other powers, I don’t know why. Not even cutting off her head will kill her, though it will slow her down for a few minutes.”

“Hmph. Well, that’s some good news. Any way of taking her down permanently?”

“Not that I’ve found. But extreme cold seems to be harder for her to heal. You have any liquid nitrogen on you?”

To my surprise, I heard the woman on the other end of the line chuckle. “I’ve got some solid nitrogen shrapnel rounds for my Blue Knight. You think those will do the trick?”

“Really?” Great, now Laura was curious. “Nitrogen melts at negative two-hundred and ten degrees Celsius. How are you keeping them cold?”

Before the changeling could answer, I spoke up. “I think there’s more important things to worry about, don’t you?”

Laura shook herself out of her fugue. “Right, sorry. Eccretia, I need—”

The sound of gunfire burst from the radio, followed a split second later by the real thing echoing down the street.

“She’s engaged the enemy,” Domothon reported, peering in the direction of the fey from earlier. “Both fey are down, but the boss is putting up a fight.”

“Silver and gold,” Laura cursed, tossing the radio back to Ferenil. “I need to call Derek, he might be able to do something. Where’s my phone?”

Something dawned on me. “Wait one second. How did you know all that stuff about the Composer, anyway?”

“I worked with Necessarius,” she muttered distractedly. “Now shush.” She had found her phone, and was dialing. Then she cursed and tossed it aside. “The fey jammers are still up! What is wrong with those idiots?”

Then the lights in the street went on.

Even a complete idiot could tell something big was about to happen.

“Steve, drag me closer,” I begged. “I need to see this.”

The big baseline moved to help, but my girlfriend tried to stop him. “No! Your wounds—”

“Please,” I whispered. “I need to make sure my sister is okay.”

Yolanda stared at me for a second, before nodding once and moving aside.

Steve was a big guy, but he wasn’t used to carrying living packages, and especially not wounded living packages. I survived being carried to the window, where I could see the entire street, but I had to bite my tongue hard enough to make it bleed just so that I didn’t scream in pain.

Although it probably wouldn’t have mattered. A bunch of vampires in the crowd—including my sister, on the ground near the winged fey—cried out in pain as soon as the lights came on.

“Sorry for the light. Need to be able to see what we’re doing.”

Derek Huntsman, with Akane Akiyama right behind him.

I don’t think I had ever been so happy to see my best friend and his bodyguard. Between them and Eccretia, Lizzy might just retreat.

But her reaction dashed that hope instantly.

Huntsman.”

It was the way she said it. Not fear, not even simple wariness of a powerful enemy, but pure hatred, colder than ice, almost matched in intensity by her angry glare.

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

She wasn’t going to run. She was going to kill Derek, here and now. That was the only way this could end.

Maybe the rest of us could escape. Yes, that was it, I needed to talk to Laura, organize some kind of retreat while the Composer was distracted…

But I couldn’t move.

I had to watch this.

I owed it to him to at least watch him die.

But Derek didn’t seem to see it that way. Judging by the grin on his face, he seemed to be under the impression that this would be a fair fight. He fell into some wrestling stance or another, palms open and ready.

“Let’s hurry this up. There are some cartoons I want to watch later.”

I rolled my eyes. Yes, antagonize the voice actress turned homicidal maniac. That couldn’t possibly cause problems down the line.

The Composer screamed a wordless battle cry and rushed forward, her blazing orange swords held at her sides.

And then Akane was there.

I didn’t even see her move, but she was there, deftly blocking Lizzy’s sword with her own, then dodging the second.

Elizabeth spat out a curse in a language I didn’t understand and jumped back, disengaging from the duel. “NABASSU!”

A demon in a sharp suit dropped out of the sky, the bat-like wings on his back disappearing into smoke as he touched the ground. His cargo was a tall, thin man with violet hair and an evil grin. Both were unarmed, but Derek and Akane were still outnumbered.

“ROBYN!” Derek called.

And then Robyn Joan Clarke dropped out of the sky.

She didn’t have wings. Or…or a jetpack, or a parachute, or a zipline, or a miniature plane, or anything else that would let a human being drop out of the sky like that. She just…floated down, easy as you please, carrying Adam Anders in her arms.

Robyn didn’t have any weapons that I could see—not surprising; she got shaky in fights—but Adam was covered in enough guns to arm a small squad. I wasn’t an expert like Yolanda, but I was able to identify the rifle slung over his left shoulder as an Olympian Athena, and the massive shotgun in his hands as the famous ‘sarian St. George. The pistol and submachine guns on his hips were simple and functional…probably Telum, then.

Adam brought up his shotgun and fired without hesitation, ignoring Elizabeth for her renegades. I think he was aiming at the demon who could fly, but it was hard to tell.

Because his shot twisted in mid air and hit the ground instead.

The violet-haired man grinned even wider in the bright glow cast by the streetlights. “That all you got, little baseline?”

Laura stepped up next to me, muttering to herself. “Akane needs to handle Ritter, at least for the moment. Once he’s distracted, Adam can kill Nabassu. Robyn won’t be useful…” She cursed and tapped buttons on her phone angrily. “Silver and gold, why can’t you idiots have earpieces?”

Both of them moved into action, almost as if they had heard her. Akane moved around violet-hair in a flanking maneuver; he flicked his hand at her—

And suddenly she was five yards away, while the ground she had been standing on exploded.

How had she moved that fast? I hadn’t even seen it! Maybe…she was another of the fey’s new pets? But no, that didn’t make sense, they had always hated the fey…

As Laura had said, while Akane kept violet-hair distracted, Adam fired again at the demon, filling the air with high-velocity pellets.

It worked, but not in the way he had intended. The man Akane was fighting waved his hand, sweeping aside the projectiles with a grimace.

But it distracted him.

Only for a moment, but long enough for Akane to rush forward—how was she moving that fast?—and cut him in two—

But no, he caught her in time, bringing both hands around to grab her with some invisible force, some kind of telekinesis, and throw her charge off target.

Elizabeth herself was staying in the background, blades gone, watching the fight intently with narrow eyes. It made me nervous. This was the first time I had ever seen her fight, and even I knew this was out of character for her. What was she planning?

Whatever it was, Robyn didn’t seem interested in finding out. Now that Adam was firmly on the ground, she took off—just shot off like an arrow from a bow, straight up, with no visible means of propulsion—trying to get out of a fight she had no training for.

The demon had other plans.

He crouched down, those bat-like wings appearing on his back in a puff of mist, and launched himself after Clarke’s daughter like a lion after a gazelle.

They flew off out of sight, but I could guess what was going to happen.

The gazelle rarely wins the fight against the lion.

But what in all Nine Hells was going on? I had heard on the news about the Composer’s Blackguards, the opposite of the Paladins. Was that what was going on here? Lizzy and her Blackguards showed up, so Derek decided to fight them? But how the frick could Robyn fly?

Derek lunged forward, past Akane and violet-hair, aiming at Elizabeth herself. I found myself briefly hoping that he didn’t have to kill her—she was obviously just a puppet of some kind—but I knew Derek would do what he had to, one way or another.

She didn’t seem particularly interested in letting him get too close, though. In the space of a blink, she had dodged to the other side of the impromptu battlefield, apparently trying to use her super speed to escape.

Her way was blocked by monsters.

The infernal dromo, both deathmarked, a venom-touched bloodbear I hadn’t noticed earlier, and more crowding behind.

I turned in shock to my sister, still lying on the ground near the edge of the light provided by the streetlamps, grinning through the pain at the Composer’s frustration. The fey girl, Aitil or something, lay with her head in her lap, breathing slowly.

Well. I guess the fey weren’t completely inhuman after all. Some empathy remained.

I turned my attention back to Elizabeth, as she turned her attention to Derek, who was still charging at her. She had a couple seconds, but she had nowhere to run. She’d summon her swords, and then—

Instead, she threw back her head and howled a name.

A name I recognized.

“GILLESPIE!”

Next to me, I heard the dull whoosh of displaced air. I turned to see nothing but a fading cloud of red mist where my roommate had been moments before.

No, it couldn’t—

Then he reappeared in an explosion of crimson mist, two feet above and behind Derek, aiming a kick straight at his head.

Derek didn’t see the attack coming—how could he?—and got hit with a powerful kick with almost two hundred pounds of muscle behind it. He was an experienced fighter, though; he rolled with the blow, bouncing along the ground for a few yards before he found his feet again.

He kept his eyes on Steve, ready for him to make the next move.

And Steve…

He looked the same as ever. A broad, sappy grin on his face, a friendly twinkle in his eye…

But he had a power.

And he had answered the Composer’s call.

My roommate was a Blackguard. That was the only logical explanation. How long? How many chances had he had to kill me? Oh Nine Hells, Nine Gates, and Nine Keepers, had he been the one to sabotage my Balor reconstruction?

No, no, that was extremely unlikely, and not important right now anyway. What was important was that three of my baseline friends were fighting three super powered puppets of a zombie making sociopath.

I turned to the changelings who were guarding the door. “Is there any way—”

“Not without hitting Huntsman or Akiyama,” Domothon muttered angrily, his rifle already up and tracking. “And I am not shooting until those two are clear.”

My girlfriend was next. “Yolanda. Please tell me you have something.”

She pulled a gun out of her backpack sheepishly. “MD89/12-Gauge,” she identified it. “Fires custom-made rockets. Completely useless.”

“May as well toss a grenade,” Domothon agreed. “Least it would be cheaper.”

“Or you could just wait,” Laura noted, her tone unconcerned, but her eyes sharp and watching. “They’re not dead yet.”

Even as I watched, Steve teleported—teleported, I was never going to get used to that—behind Derek, but this time the blond monster slayer was ready. He dropped down, dodging the first kick, then reached up and grabbed my roommate’s leg. Before Steve could react, Derek was flipping him over backwards, sending him sprawling to the street.

Steve might have crazy super powers and be built like a truck, but he had never been a fighter. Derek was.

While Steve was still dazed and disoriented from the unexpected counterattack, Derek pressed the advantage, stomping hard on Steve’s knee—breaking it with a crack loud enough to be heard over the Blackguard’s sharp scream—and grabbing his opponent’s shirt with one hand while punching him in the face with the other.

Apparently, the Composer did not like seeing her toys broken. She ground her teeth in rage and rushed forward, glowing orange swords leaking mist as they swung at Derek’s head.

And suddenly Akane was there, blocking one of the blades.

Just there. She crossed ten yards in the space of a blink, leaving Adam alone with violet-hair…

Who fell apart, cut diagonally in half.

What?

Before I could make sense of what was happening in front of me, I realized that Akane had only blocked one of Elizabeth’s blades. The other was still heading straight for Derek’s—

He blocked it.

With a glowing shield that appeared on his forearm, leaking blue mist.

Wait.

The Composer spat a curse in some language or another and dodged back again, her blades fading as she put some distance between her and her opponents using super speed. Steve teleported next to her, sporting a broken nose and what looked like a cracked jaw, and immediately collapsed on the street due to his knee.

Wait one second here.

The shield on Derek’s arm shrunk until it was about the size of a small buckler, which wouldn’t interfere with his movements so much. He fell into another combat stance, hands open and ready to grab, while Akane returned to his side at super speed. Adam took his place behind the swordswoman, checking his SMG.

This wasn’t—

“He used a power—” I heard Yolanda mutter. “But that means—”

The changelings guarding the door had dropped their guns in shock, and next to me I think Leon might have actually fainted.

Derek had a power. That he was using against the Composer.

That meant he—and Akane and Robyn Joan—were the Paladins who had been fighting the screamers this entire time.

That explained a lot.

However, it seemed like my weakened body had decided this was the last straw. I felt a sharp pain in my head, my girlfriend’s voice calling something unintelligible, and then everything went black.

Behind the Scenes (scene 206)

There’s a lot going on here, and I’m not sure Simon’s viewpoint is the best one.

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.

Scene 202 – Abscondens

ABSCONDENS

SIMON

This was a bad idea.

“This is a wonderful idea,” Yolanda said cheerily as she clung to my arm, tugging at my scars. “I’m glad you finally agreed.”

The train slowed to a stop, and we piled out as the doors opened. “I just think…” I said slowly. “I just think that we should have thought this through a bit more, you know? Planned it out a bit more—”

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “You’ve been underground for over two weeks—”

“Fifteen days, actually,” I muttered. Wait, that was how long I had been awake. How long had I been down there before I woke up? I knew they told me, but I couldn’t recall…

She ignored me. “And you still haven’t told your friends you are alive. I think coming back to the surface is a good thing.”

I winced up at the sun. “Maybe. But I wish I had at least remembered sunglasses.”

My girlfriend rolled her eyes. “It’s twilight. Give it another half hour and it will be dark.”

It was October 31st, Halloween. Eleven days after Titania had mentioned that my former Power, Narek Nhang, had been killed. Fear of him had been one of my primary reasons for staying in the ruins of Shendilavri, but not the only one. I had been able to put it off for a while, but now I had run out of excuses.

Yolanda led me to a small coffee shop not a block from the station, mostly abandoned except for a single demon girl waiting on the sole occupied table. The street outside, while not excessively crowded, was busy enough that it took us a few minutes to navigate through the throng. We almost knocked over a man on a ladder installing a speaker on the corner; he glared at us, but didn’t say anything.

“Hey there, Yolanda!” Adam called, making the rest of the group turn to face us. “Who’s your friend?”

Laura, sitting between Adam and Derek at the large table, put her drink down with wide eyes. “I think that’s…Simon?”

Derek slowly stood, a disbelieving look on his face. “No, I thought Simon died! He couldn’t have just…”

I grinned as best as I could, considering the scars. “Don’t write me off too soon, bastard.”

My old friend grinned as he came around the table and wrapped me in a massive bear hug, squeezing so hard I could barely feel my screaming scars over my cracking ribs. “You stupid demon, why didn’t you call!?”

“Put him down,” Yolanda begged. “He’s still not completely healed.”

The baseline did so quickly, as the rest of the table came up to pat me on the back. All my surviving friends were there. An extremely well-armed Pam, that Dagonite Eric, a grinning Steve, a surprised Laura, a glowering Akane, Delphie’s nephew Leon…

And Seena.

There was something different about her, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but that wasn’t the important part. She was staring at me, daygoggles off, as if she had seen a ghost.

“Simon,” she whispered very, very quietly. “You…I…you were dead. Nhang said you were dead.”

I grimaced. “Well, he wasn’t far off. I just got lucky. Found by some ghouls who didn’t feel hungry, that whole thing.”

“Is that what happened to your cosmos?” Adam asked. “Your purple skin, the horns, and…” He frowned. “What’s up with the scars, anyway? Toy maker should be able to get rid of those, right?”

Another grimace. “It’s a long story. Can we sit down?”

Lily—who was the ‘demon’ girl I hadn’t recognized earlier—stole two chairs from nearby tables, and we all sat down, me a little bit more gingerly than the others.

“Let’s start simple,” the waitress said firmly. “Introductions all around. Who here doesn’t know Simon?” Three hands were raised a little meekly. “Okay, everyone, this is Simon Lancaster, Seena’s brother. Simon, this is Akane’s boyfriend Flynn—” The man in question blushed slightly, and Akane punched Lily in the shoulder hard enough to break bone. She didn’t react. “And these are Eccretia’s bodyguards, Domothon and Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I nodded at the swordsman, and the two golden-haired changelings. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Flynn nodded back politely, and the changelings—seated at a smaller table nearby—waved in response.

“Why didn’t you call?” Seena demanded the instant introductions were over. “I thought you were dead!

What was it that was different about her? I mean, her voice sounded a little different, but since my ears had been rebuilt, everything sounded a bit off.

I tried to find an answer that wouldn’t end with Derek leading Necessarius into the ruins of Shendilavri. “It’s a long story. I wasn’t exactly mobile for a while, and the place where I was resting didn’t have any phones.”

Laura looked up, her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Really. No phones at all.”

I squirmed under her gaze. “I…I dunno. No phones I could use, anyway. They didn’t trust me not to do something stupid.”

That seemed to placate her for the moment. “Fine. But why come up now? Healed up sufficiently?”

“Mostly.” I smiled as best I could. “Besides that, it’s Halloween! It’s like, the most important day of the year, right?”

Pam snorted. “Subtle subject change.”

Adam, however, was willing to humor me. “How is Halloween the most important day of the year? I mean…” he indicated Lily and my sister. “…it kinda seems like there’s no point in dressing up.”

Lily just gave him a look. “What do you mean, no point? I’ll have you know, I look wonderful in a dress.”

He waved his hands frantically, realizing there was some cultural miscommunication here. “No, sweetie—” Oh, right, those two were dating. I kept forgetting that. She wasn’t really known for steady relationships. Plus, she only dated outsiders, which limited her opportunities. “I mean, on the mainland, on Halloween people dress up as monsters and stuff. I’m guessing that doesn’t happen here.”

Laura nodded. “Right, I remember hearing about that. And they visit strangers’ houses for candy, right?”

Leon perked up. “Candy?”

But Pam placed her hand on the boy’s head, quieting him, and gave Laura an odd look. “That sounds remarkably dangerous. Screening the candy for poison seems like it would be impracticable.”

“These are kids,” Laura noted.

Everyone at the table nodded in sudden understanding; we all knew what happened if you hurt children. Everyone nodded except Adam, that is.

“What? No, they don’t not poison the candy just because kids are involved! They just…don’t poison the candy.”

“Why not?” Pam pressed. “As long as you’re careful only to hand out the poisoned ones to enemies—”

“Most people outside this city aren’t willing to murder!

The changeling nodded. “Right, I understand leaving children out of it—”

“Not just children!” Adam nearly shrieked. “No murder! At all!”

The well-armed woman blinked, then turned to Laura. “You’ve been outside Domina. You know what he’s talking about?”

“Oh, yes,” the Spanish baseline admitted. It took me a second to recognize the look on her face as a smirk. “But I think it’s better for him to explain it.”

Before anyone could ask him any more questions the man in question threw up his hands. “So! What do you do on Halloween?”

Derek shrugged. “I dunno, I didn’t really have any plans…”

“I meant what does the city do. Your idea of a social event is a monster hunt.”

“Well, that’s part of it,” Lily admitted. “There are a lot of hunts on Halloween. Orphanages and stuff go after rats and other easy things like that to give the kids some experience.”

“But that’s a kid thing,” Derek cut in. “The professional slayers just try and keep the more dangerous stuff out of the way for the night.”

My sister spoke up. “Most adults go to parties. Fancy balls and dinners. All very elegant and everything, I assure you. My culture is actually hosting one tonight, if anyone is interested.”

I raised an eyebrow. “The Mals are having a public party?”

“Not at Maladomini. We rented a space.” She shrugged. “Just a good-will public relations boost. It was Moloch’s idea.”

Pam nodded. “I expected as much. I knew your viceroy before he joined Baal, you know.” She thought for a moment. “Before Baal founded the culture, now that I think of it.”

“Oh right,” I muttered. “I keep forgetting you’re a freaking warlord.”

She glared at me. “Don’t call me that. Warlords are for the cultures. The changelings are not a culture.”

“…wait wait,” Derek said with an upheld hand. “I think we missed something. You’re a warlord?”

The changeling turned to glare at him in turn. “No. But I am Eccretia, of the Never-Known Thieves. Didn’t we go over this earlier?”

“…no, no we definitely did not. I just remember you from…” he waved his hand. “A couple months ago. Around when school started. You were just Pam.” He looked her up and down. “And you were less well-armed.”

Flynn, the guy introduced as Akane’s boyfriend, didn’t seem particularly surprised. He grinned. “What, the changeling bodyguards weren’t a clue?”

“I thought they were just more friends of Seena’s, or something. Strangely enough, my first thought was not ‘bodyguards for one of the original changelings.’”

“I said they were bodyguards,” Lily put in.

“And the others?” Akane asked quietly.

Her boss shrugged. “Figured they were spies. Assassins. The usual.”

Yolanda and I looked at each other in confusion. “…what others?”

“There are about a dozen baselines—or changelings, rather—watching us right now,” Derek noted nonchalantly. She gave Pam a sideways look. “I’m assuming they’re yours.”

The Paragon nodded. “I am impressed you noticed them, though.”

“I’ve been stalked by vampires. Changelings aren’t very hard to spot, compared to that.”

Akane started to speak. “There are—” but she fell quiet when Derek gave her a look.

There was an awkward silence for a moment there, before Lily spoke up. “I’m not sure how I feel about a Mal party, but maybe we can go somewhere. Eccretia, what are the changelings planning?”

Pam raised an eyebrow. “Nothing. Why would they?”

“Uh, actually…” Domothon piped up from the other table. “We’ve got a few things set up. The Jovian Killers and the Murdered Summers have rented a small warehouse just inside the borders of NHQ, with the Elder Lights handling security.”

His superior stared at him, hard. “Why didn’t you tell me about this? Actually, why didn’t Gan’neeg, Kish-kish, or Difnaal tell me?”

The golden-haired changeling shrugged. “C’mon, boss, you haven’t gone to a single party in fifteen years. No one invites you to anything any more.”

Pam looked annoyed, but didn’t argue. “Fine. Whatever.” She sighed. “Anyone want to go to that party? I’ll pay for everyone.”

“I’m in!” Steve cooed with a grin, to the surprise of no one. “Never been to a changeling party before. What kinda food you guys got? Any beer?”

The not-warlord ignored him. “Anyone else?”

Derek looked contemplative. “Well, it would be safer than most of the alternatives. And we could use a night off…” He looked at Laura. “Our parents will be at the Big Boss’s party, so we’ll probably have to poke our heads in there, at least for a few minutes.”

“And I’ll need to put in an appearance at the Mal party,” Seena added. “Zepar will be pissed if I don’t spend an hour or two schmoozing.”

What an odd thing to say. “I…guess I can go with you,” I said slowly. “I don’t really want anything to do with the sibs any more.” I turned to Yolanda. “Unless you wanted to go somewhere else…?”

“My friend is doing something.” From the look in her eyes, I could tell by ‘friend,’ she meant one of the succubus warlords. “But I think I can skip that. I’d prefer to be with you.”

“My vote’s the changeling party,” Adam spoke up. “No offense to everybody, but I think I’d like going somewhere where being baseline is the norm, not the exception.”

His girlfriend nodded. “I’ll admit, that’s what I was thinking as well.”

Adam gave her an odd look. “Um, sweetie, you’re not exactly baseline yourself.”

She grimaced. “Baselines…don’t treat me the same way as everyone else. Sometimes it’s nice to just be another girl, albeit one with horns.”

Her boyfriend looked confused for a moment before nodding in understanding. “I—got it. Okay. I guess…sure. I’m with you.”
She grinned and kissed him on the cheek.

“What about you, Leon?” my sister asked, addressing Delphie’s orphaned nephew, sitting beside Pam. “You want to go to a changeling party?”

“I’m already going!” he chirped happily. “I’m the cook’s assistant!”

Seena blinked her nighteyes in the twilight. “You’re what?

Pam growled. “Another thing I wasn’t told about, Dom?”

The changeling bodyguard shrugged. “He saw all the party prep, and he wanted to be involved, so…”

I looked between the two changelings. “Wait, what’s going on? Am I missing something?”

“Leon’s living with the Never-Known Thieves for now,” Eric, the Dagonite who didn’t really look like a Dagonite, explained. “No one really trusted Delphie’s hunters to look after him.”

Oh. I guess that made sense. “Well, what time is that? The party, I mean. Seven or so?”

“Six, actually,” Domothon corrected. “Though you can show up whenever. I’ll call ahead, make sure…they know to…expect…” he trailed off, looking at something behind me.

The rest of the table was staring, too.

I swallowed. “So. How big is the monster that’s sitting right behind me?”

“Oh, not too big,” a friendly female voice giggled.

I turned, slowly, careful not to provoke her, only to find…

A girl with honey-brown skin, brown hair, and eyes as black as night sat astride a monster I didn’t recognize, some sort of four-legged beast vaguely resembling a horse. The girl wore what appeared to be a backless black dress of purest midnight.

Next to her, astride a similar beast, was a man with alabaster skin, a fine white silk shirt, and similarly made white pants. His eyes, while violet, appeared otherwise baseline, but could have been dayeyes. His hair was a relatively subdued blond, but done up as spikes that would have been impossible without a lot of product.

Behind them were their monsters.

At least two massive alley-crawlers, bigger than any I had ever seen, reared up over the horde. A dozen small yokvel, like furless cats with iron claws and a disposition to hunting in packs, prowled around the crawlers. Two deathmarked—powerful ape-things with bones visible through their thin and hairless skin—stood directly behind the mounted man and woman, like an honor guard. I even spotted an infernal dromo, a fire-spitting scorpion the size of a car.

I doubted very, very much that this was the limit of what these two had brought.

“My name is Aitil Péine,” the woman said. “Prince of Night’s Southern Autumn. And this is Gealach Tapaidh, Prince of Day’s Southern Autumn.”

The fey woman grinned at us.

“The Wild Hunt has begun.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 202)

Isn’t it interesting that this would happen not a day after the fey received the full rights of a culture?

Scene 187 – Occultatio

OCCULTATIO

SIMON

Yolanda brushed my arm gently, unintentionally tugging at the countless scars. “Are you sure?”

I did my best not to wince. “Yeah. Look, you can if you want, but I don’t want to go back up just yet.” I suppressed a shiver. “I don’t want to see anyone right now.”

“Then I’m staying too,” she promised, snuggling closer on the bed.

While I appreciated the sentiment—and her presence—I didn’t want her to have to do anything like that. She had her own life to live, and I wasn’t going to die any time soon. “You need to at least go to school. You’ve already missed an entire week because of me, right?”

“Oh, please. No one’s going to school any more. Between the Composer and the fey, most of the classes are canceled, and the rest are empty.”

I smiled at that. “Is it ironic that while everyone else is dodging school because of the fey, you’re actually seeing one on a regular basis?”

She was silent for a moment, thinking. “…I don’t think so. No, I’m pretty sure that’s not irony.” I felt her shrug. “Besides, I don’t see Titania on any kind of schedule.”

That was true. The Queen had only come by once since I woke up on Monday. She stopped by a couple days ago to double-check my wounds and see to a few projects among the succubi.

Eisheth Zenunim, the warlord doctor, had been a more permanent fixture. She checked on me twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, to make sure I was healing smoothly. And internally, I was. My bones were knitting together nicely, my new organs were showing no sign of rejection, and the old ones were taking the repairs well.

But on the outside, I still looked like I had lost a fight with a blender.

I knew I needed to get over it. Life and hope and all that. Besides, I had a beautiful girlfriend who didn’t care what I looked like.

But…

Still.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked quietly, as she traced circles on my bare chest with her finger. It took an effort of will not to wince.

After a moment, I came up with a believable lie. “My sister. I went through the balor reconstruction to make sure she stayed safe and…” I shrugged helplessly. “Now I’m not sure if she is.”

“Liar,” she whispered. “But that’s still a good point. And you know the easiest way to check is to go back up to the surface.”

Though I was happy she hadn’t asked what I was lying about, I still shook my head at her suggestion. “No.”

“You look fine—”

“My vanity is only a small part. More importantly, I’m worried about Nhang.”

She sat up in the bed. “He did try to kill you, yes.”

“Well, not really. He disposed of a failed experiment.” I shrugged, tugging at my scars again. “Hopefully that means once I convince him I’m not going to call in Necessarius to oversee retribution, he’ll be content to leave me alone.”

“Maybe,” she muttered, as she slid off the bed and started looking for her shirt. “But he might not be satisfied with that.”

I smiled—and nearly winced again as the motion tugged at the scars on my face. “You were the one trying to get me to go topside not five minutes ago. You’ve changed your mind already?”

She gave me a mock glare. “I don’t mean that. I just mean be careful about parading in front of your old Power. Get in touch with Seena and the others first, that kind of thing.”

That got me thinking along rather dark paths. “The others…who else is left? Jelena and Zusa are dead, Kevin is dead and Steve’s in a coma—”

“Pretty sure Steve came out of the coma. Probably still in the hospital, though.”

“Still. Veda’s…gone, and I doubt Delphie is still alive. So, what? That’s pretty much just Seena left, right?”

“There’s Eric,” she reminded me as she slipped her top back on. “Not to mention Derek, Adam, and Laura.”

“Did you even meet Laura?”

“No, but you guys have mentioned her.”

“Well, she and Derek are busy all the time doing whatever. And Adam is kinda…weird.”

She smacked me lightly on the shoulder, sending arcs of pain through my scars. “He’s not a Dominite. Be nice.”

“That’s not what I mean. During that gargant attack, I think he was coming at us with knives.”

My girlfriend looked at me sideways. “You sure? That seems unlikely. If he wanted to kill us, he would just use his guns.”

“Look, I don’t get it either. I’m just telling you what I saw.”

“Well, whatever. If you don’t want to talk to Adam, there’s still all the others.” She paused, considering. “And Pam.”

Unable to stop myself, I made a face. “Eugh. No thanks.”

She glared. “What’s wrong with Pam?”

“You mean besides the fact that she’s a changeling who’s been lying to us for as long as we’ve known her?”

“In fairness, we’ve only known her since school started. You can’t expect her to just open up to a randomly-assigned roommate.” She gave me a level look.

Right, got the point. If I made an issue of it, we were going to have an argument about how it related to her secrets.

“Besides,” the succubus continued as she pulled on her pants. “She’s a changeling warlord. Or…” she cocked her head to the side. “Do changelings have warlords?”

I shrugged, then winced. Stupid scars. “I think so. Everyone on Fundie was calling them ‘Paragons,’ so…yeah. Don’t know what the changelings themselves are saying.”

“They’re all hackers. Aren’t they online most of the time?”

“Probably, but if they do, they don’t tell people they’re changelings.”

“Understandable. But whether Pam is called a warlord or what, she’s still one of the founders of the clans, and your friend.”

“Hmph,” I grunted.

How Yolanda managed to ignore such a well-thought out argument I’ll never know, but she just continued as if I hadn’t said anything. Or, uh, made any noise. “Plus, she had a crush on you.”

That made me sit up. “Wait a second. She did? All she did was glare at me.”

“Well, she glared at everyone. But, yeah. She actually told me, after we got together, when I noticed her glaring at me.”

I strode up from the bed, ignoring my screaming scars, to lay my hand on her shoulder. “She didn’t threaten you, did she?”

The blonde demon placed her hand on my cheek and smiled up at me. “No, sweetie. She just explained why she didn’t like me. She’s not the type to hold a grudge.”

As she started scrounging around the room for her discarded jacket, I considered it. “Pam isn’t really the type to let her emotions get in the way at all,” I mused.

“Yep,” Yolanda confirmed.

“So why do you think she’ll shelter me from Nhang?”

I kinda expected that to set her back on her heels a bit, but she didn’t even blink. “Because it costs her next to nothing, and puts you in her debt.” She smiled at me from across the room where she had finally found her jacket. “I know you don’t like politics, but this is pretty basic diplomacy.”

“Unless of course, dearest Eccretia has already been contracted by your enemies,” a new voice, warm like honey, pointed out. “In which case she would kill you on sight.”

“Lady Titania!” Yolanda shrieked, before blushing and bowing her head deeply. “I…I…”

“Oh, hush, little demon. I’m not here to disturb your love nest.” The fey Seelie Queen turned to me. “I just need to check on your man again.”

I sat down on the bed again, having gone through enough of the matron’s administrations to know what to do. The beautiful fey—in a gorgeous yellow and white sundress woven with gold—produced a stethoscope from somewhere and started listening to my heartbeat.

“So, uh,” I said a little slowly, but when she didn’t stop me I continued on. “Pam—I mean, Eccretia—has been contracted to kill me?”

The Queen of Earth and Light looked at me with surprise. “What ever gave you that idea?”

“Um, you did. Just now.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, continuing her tests. “No, lucky for you, you don’t have too many enemies left, and none with the money to hire dearest Eccretia.”

“Narek Nhang might,” I noted. “He’d also be in a position to know I know her.”

The fey laughed. “Nhang? That’d be a trick. Besides, even aside from the obvious problem, I doubt he would have the money to spare. Dearest Eccretia is far from cheap.”

I blinked. “Wait, you said something important.”

Everything I say is important, Honored Devil,” she reminded me. Then she quirked her head, looking at the scars on my chest. “Did you know the scar above your heart looks exactly like Artemis in this light? Yolanda, come look at this—”

“No, what I mean is you said there was some obvious reason Nhang couldn’t hire Eccretia. Do they hate each other or something?”

“I suspect so,” she nodded solemnly as she wrapped up the stethoscope. “Silly little changelings hate the toy maker and everything to do with it. But mostly, he can’t hire her because he’s dead.”

My heart stopped in my chest.

“I’m sorry,” I choked. “What was that?”

“He’s dead,” Titania repeated, cheerfully oblivious to the effect those words were having on me. “Killed by Noble Nyashk, of the Mals. Retribution has been paid and everything.”

“But…I…”

The fey, finally noticing something was wrong, frowned at me. “Oh, dear, did you want to kill him yourself?” She patted me on the head in a motherly fashion. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll make plenty of other enemies who will be happy to wait around to be killed by you.”

With only a few more words, Titania left, as easily as flicking off a light in a room.

For my part, I was still too stunned to move. After a few minutes, Yolanda sat down next to me and leaned against my shoulder.

She didn’t say anything, but I knew what she was thinking.

I was losing excuses not to go back up to the surface.

Behind the Scenes (scene 187)

This came out better than I expected.