Tag Archives: Steve Gillespie

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.

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Scene 186 – Diversis

DIVERSIS

SEENA

Steve Gillespie cocked his head as he looked at me. “I don’t think you look that different.”

I glared at him. “Really? I haven’t seen you since Kevin died and you got put into a coma, and that’s the first thing you say to me?”

He just shrugged. “Well, the first thing you said was ‘I know I look different,’ so yeah, that’s the first thing I say.”

Leon looked me up and down, frowning. “Did you get taller?”

“I also got a tail,” I noted, flicking it lightly towards his face.

“Well, I saw that right away.”

I was glad Leon had managed to survive the fey attack—mostly due to Eric—but I wasn’t sure how to tell him that his aunt was dead. I didn’t want to burden him with that so soon after his mother’s demise. Okay, sure, it wasn’t confirmed that Delphie was dead, but she had been in pretty bad condition, and there hadn’t been any sign of her since.

It had been Eric’s idea that we all meet up today, at one of the many nearly-empty cafes near AU. The Dagonite had called me, not sure what to do with Melanie’s son. I hadn’t really been able to think of anything either—Delphie would come back from the grave and throttle me if I brought Leon to the Mals—so he had suggested gathering everyone together and seeing what we could all come up with.

Steve had gotten out of the hospital yesterday, so this was a good chance to catch up. Simon…Simon was dead, and Yolanda nowhere to be found. With no one else to call, I had done the unthinkable.

I had called Pam.

I had called Eccretia, Paragon of the Never-Known Thieves and co-founder of the changelings. One of the most powerful women in the city.

And she had come.

She didn’t look anything like before. Instead of her bland shirt and pants, she was wearing a light ceramic body armor overlaid with Kevlar. The kind of thing that would ward off animal bites as easily as bullets, but it was probably ungodly heavy.

And that was just the start. In addition to the pistol she had always carried before—a Black Knight ZF740, if I remembered correctly—she also had a Necessarian Saint Jude on her opposite hip, and some kind of Hellion machine gun strapped across her back, with a spare ammo belt slung over her chest.

She looked ready for war, but I suppose I wasn’t one to talk, what with my new found ability to punch through concrete and such. And with the Composer running around slaughtering people, I guess there was no such thing as being over prepared

Only her eyes were the same. Cold, hard, and calculating.

She had brought two young men with her, who I assumed to be more changelings. The one with pale skin and bright golden hair put his coat over the back of a seat and pulled it out; my plain-faced friend sat down without looking at him. He adjusted the rifle slung over his shoulder and took a seat nearby, next to another changeling with similar hair, but a slightly darker complexion.

Eccretia didn’t take her eyes off me.

I coughed. “So, I take it you understand why I called you here?”

“You said it was because of Delphie’s nephew,” she noted. “But I’m guessing that’s not the extent of it.”

I averted my eyes from hers, glad my daygoggles disguised the action. “Let’s focus on Leon right now. The murids are already searching for him.”

The changeling warlord raised an eyebrow. “Why? I assume if they honestly wanted to help him in memory of their Alpha, you’d have handed him over already.”

“You probably know better than I do. But from what I’ve gathered, the culture is on the verge of imploding. Every hunter and wanna-be Alpha is trying to hold it together by consolidating around their chosen leader—themselves, usually.”

Pam—Eccretia nodded. “They want Leon as a figurehead. No one will pretend he’s the leader, but if they can convince everyone else he’s on their side, the memory of his mother will earn them a lot of converts.”

Leon looked like he was going to say something, but Eric silenced him just by placing his hand on his shoulder. Instead, the Dagonite spoke. “How many murids are there, anyway? Ballpark.”

“I dunno…” I thought about it. “A little over ten thousand. But I don’t know how big Plague’s group was—”

“There are eleven thousand, three hundred and eighteen murids as of the last census report,” Eccretia corrected. “Nine hundred and four followed the Lady of the Plague.”

I blinked in surprise. Not at the changeling knowing the numbers—I should have guessed she’d have that data—but at the numbers themselves. “She had almost a thousand people under her? Seriously? I thought it was a couple hundred, tops.”

“What’d you think when you heard ‘biggest murid subculture?’”

“I don’t know, but less than ten percent!”

“That is less than ten percent.”

“You know what I mean. A lot less.”

She shrugged. “Plague was very charismatic and driven. There’s a reason she was assassinated; no one can really take her place.”

I sighed. “Well, I mean, I guess I understood that, it just never quite…clicked.” I waved my hand. “I mean, c’mon, a single mother—”

I stopped breathing as I suddenly remembered something very important.

Steve leaned in with a frown. “Seena? You alright?”

“Leon,” I managed. “What happened to your sister?”

He looked guilty. “Um…I’m not sure. I haven’t seen her since the nest was attacked—”

“Nine Hells,” I hissed, grabbing him by the shirt. “Didn’t you say it’s your job to look out for her? If—”

“Calm down, Nyashk,” Eccretia said soothingly. “Sable is fine. One of Plague’s hunters spirited her away the second things started going wrong. We’re keeping an eye on them, but he seems to have everything in hand.”

I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding. “You could have mentioned that.”

“I just did.”

“Wait one second,” Eric said, looking at me strangely. “Nyashk? I thought your last name was Lancaster.”

It took an effort of will not to wince. “It…is. I’m just…” I took another deep breath. “There’s a bit of a story behind my new toys.”

The pale-skinned changeling at Eccretia’s side looked confused. “I thought you just decided to get some buffs after your brother died.”

Steve choked, crushing his glass in his hand in the process. He didn’t seem to notice. “Simon is dead? When did that happen?”

“Domothon,” my sour-faced changeling friend admonished her pale bodyguard. “Don’t act like you knew him.” She turned back to Steve. “Yes, Simon is dead. The exact details are unclear, but apparently a sibriex experiment went awry.”

The massive man jumped to his feet, making the whole table shake. “Then we need to do something! Call—” he choked again, searching for an answer. “The ‘sarians! Someone! I—”

“It’s been dealt with,” I said tiredly. “Sit down.”

He blinked at me, slowly. “What do you mean, dealt with?”

“Nhang is dead,” I explained. “Necessarius witnessed the attack. A retribution fee has been issued, and paid. It’s done.”

Except for the treaty with Aramazd, which Zepar had jumped on like a hound on a bone. New toys in exchange for some simple protection? My fellow warlord had literally hugged me at the news.

“How is the new Power?” Eccretia asked curiously. “I don’t have any information on him.”

I shrugged. “He’s a misshapen bundle of flesh tied to a server farm. I’m not really sure what to make of him.”

The bodyguard who had spoken before piped up again. “There are a few weird things going on there. Narek Nhang was the Gatekeeper of the Eighth Hell, Ani Kamakhym, which is named after an Armenian mythological site. But Nhang was Chinese, and his first name—though Armenian—a pseudonym. I don’t understand—”

“You’re right, you don’t understand,” his boss interrupted, causing his mouth to snap shut. “For example, you don’t understand that Ani Kamakhym was the main sanctuary of the father-god of the Armenian pantheon.” She fixed me with a steely glare. “Aramazd.”

That set me back in my chair. “Nhang’s subordinate was named after the highest figure in his chosen pantheon? That seems odd. There’s no way he would have missed that reference.”

“Maybe he just didn’t want to change his name?” Leon said, a little quietly. “I mean, a lot of warlords do like my mom did, but I know Auntie Delphie thought it was stupid, and that crab lady kept her real name.”

Steve laughed. “That’s a point. Maybe it was just the server-monster, and no one cared enough to make a fuss. Did any of the other sibs have Armenian references in their names?”

“How should I know?” I muttered. “Until thirty seconds ago, I didn’t even know Aramazd meant anything important.” I huffed. “Hells, I didn’t even know Ani Kamakhym was Armenian.”

The second changeling, the one with darker skin but the same golden hair, finally spoke. “But you did know the Eighth Gate was Ani Kamakhym, not Arhestanots, right?”

I nodded. That was a mistake people made a lot with the various one-building domains. The sibriex domain was Ani Kamakhym, but since that domain only consisted of a single building (Arhestanots), a lot of people confused the two. The Mals got around that problem simply by not naming our building. Our domain was Maladomini, and that was it. Simon had always had trouble—

I closed my eyes, willing tears to stay back.

Nine Hells, was this going to happen every time I thought of my stupid brother?

I felt a hand on my arm, and turned, blinking, to see Eric looking at me with concern.

“It’s going to be all right,” he insisted. “Eventually.”

Steve and the changeling bodyguards looked a little bit uncomfortable, but Eccretia and Leon just looked confused.

“What are you two talking about?” she asked. “Did Aramazd do something I didn’t hear about?”

The pale changeling, the one I think she had called Domothon, sighed. “Gods of men and darkness, boss, learn to read the mood.”

The boss in question just glared at her subordinate, and he immediately shut up.

I forced a smile on my face and changed the subject. “Actually, I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced.” I held out my hand to shake.

The pale one took it firmly. “Domothon of the Never-Known Thieves,” he confirmed. He indicated his darker companion with a jerk of his thumb; the second man didn’t seem interested in shaking hands. “This is Ferenil, also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“You two brothers?” Leon asked innocently. “Your hair is the same.”

The changeling pair winced, and I couldn’t help but feel for them. Leon was a bit young to understand the whole…loss of identity that fey-slaves went through.

Thankfully, Domothon recovered quickly, managing a pained smile. “No, it’s nothing like that. We just happen to have the same hair color, that’s all.”

“Oh. That’s boring.” He turned back to me. “I want to hear more about what happened with Seena and Simon.”

Steve’s perpetual smile was briefly replaced by a small scowl. “Don’t be rude, boy. I’m sure she’s still hurting.”

I’m still hurting?” I asked, a little incredulous. “You got out of a coma yesterday.”

“Actually, I woke up on the sixth. I was released yesterday—”

I barreled on as if I hadn’t heard him. “A coma you were in because someone tried to kill you and succeeded in killing your roommate.” I managed to shrug, a nonchalant gesture I didn’t feel. “I got my revenge. I think you need help more than me.”

The not-giant looked pained. “It’s…complicated. It’s not clear who attacked us—”

“Probably the Aesir,” Eccretia noted, taking a sip out of her cup. “Maybe the trolls or the ogres, but I’m betting on the Aesir. It was two days after Mjolnir’s death. I think they were just lashing out.”

Steve glared. “Look, Pam—”

“Eccretia,” she corrected.

He chuckled a little, waving his hand. “Yeah, yeah, I heard. I don’t know where you’re getting your information, but you’re not much older than me. You don’t get to act all high and mighty.”

The warlord raised an eyebrow. “Steve, I escaped from the fey when I was physically somewhere in the neighborhood of four years old. I’ve been leading the Never-Known Thieves ever since. You’ve been a courier for the last three years. So yes, I do get to act ‘all high and mighty.’ Especially when dealing with Jotuun spies.”

The large black baseline frowned briefly, before barking out a bitter laugh, which contrasted strongly with his normal happy chuckle. “For crying out loud—just because I’m big doesn’t mean I’m a freaking Jotuun.” He shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably, as though reminded he didn’t quite fit in it. “I thought you were better than that.”

“So you didn’t know Kevin was a Jotuun spy?” she replied blandly. “Interesting.”

Steve blinked. “He what.”

“Yeah,” I piped up. “Pam told us…” I thought back, then winced. “Right before the fey came out and grabbed Veda.”

“Why didn’t anyone tell me!?”

“You were in a coma.”

“I meant after!”

“We just did,” Eccretia said with that same damnable calm. “What does it matter? He’s gone.”

The baseline rubbed his bald scalp in apprehension. “It matters because apparently the reason behind the attack was because he was a spy!” His eyes were going wild; I didn’t understand why he was freaking out so much. “Good God…if I had known…”

“Steve, you’re scaring me.” I could feel my tail twitching a little—that had been happening recently, and I frowned as I tried to get it under control. “Everybody has spies. Yeah, you got caught in the middle this time, but is it really such a big deal?”

“It…it…” he wet his lips. “Michelle. He had a sister, Michelle Irwin. What happened to her?”

I turned to Eccretia, but she just shrugged. “I stopped paying attention to all that after Kevin died. Don’t look at me.”

I shrugged too. “I don’t know either. Simon might—” I fell silent.

Eric managed to break it quickly enough, though. “Simon had a girlfriend, right? The demon? Maybe she’d know.”

“I haven’t been able to get in touch with her,” I muttered, still sullen. “She hasn’t been back to the dorms that I can tell, and no one has seen her at school.”

The green-haired Dagonite winced. “Yeah, I can see how this would be a hard time for her. She probably ran back to her orphanage for a while.”

“Yolanda has a surviving uncle,” Eccretia noted. “Our own Senator McDowell, actually.”

Eric blinked. “Wait, the guy they called a vote of no-confidence on?”

“Yes.”

“Huh.” He scratched his chin. “Well, I guess she’s probably off with him, then. My roommate went on about how awesome this guy was yesterday when we got the call, so she must be fine.”

That got Steve’s attention again. I was also happy to see his normal half-smile was back. “So you didn’t vote to out him?”

“Why would I?” Eric asked with a shrug. “I have nothing against the man. Besides, did you see the guys who would be replacing him? The Granit is the one who has the most support. No thank you.”

My phone beeped; I checked it to find a message from Zepar. Some minor discipline problem had come up back at the domain, and he wanted me to take part.

“I’ve gotta go,” I said to the others apologetically. “Eccretia, can you get Leon to those murid hunters who are looking after his sister?”

“I can, but I’m not sure it would be best.”

Please,” I begged. “It’s better than leaving him with a defenseless Dagonite.”

“Point of order,” the man in question piped up. “I’m not a Dagonite any more—”

“Shush,” Eccretia interrupted without taking her eyes off me. “The adults are talking.” She bit her lip, thinking, before nodding. “I’ll look into the hunters. If they don’t work out, I can keep the boy at my base for a week or so.”

Such a generous offer surprised me, but I kept it off my face, and just nodded. “Thank you, Dame Eccretia.”

She grinned thinly. “Thank you, Noble Nyashk.”

Steve, Eric, and Leon all blinked owlishly and said in unison “Noble who?

“Gotta go,” I chirped as I rocketed out of my chair. “Call if you get a hold of Yolanda!”

Behind the Scenes (scene 186)

“Arhestanots” is Armenian for workshop. Which summarizes what the sibriex do pretty well.

And in regards to Eccretia’s age, remember that changelings can only guess on anything except what their DNA explicitly codes for. She might have looked about four or five by the time they had stripped her of all her fey toys, but she definitely didn’t act like it.

Scene 114 – Turbati

TURBATI

SIMON

“Hey guys,” I said as I slid into place next Yolanda and planted a kiss on her cheek. “What’s up?”

“We’re discussing the implications of Lizzy being outed as the Composer,” my sister said with surprising bluntness.

I snorted. “She’s not. End of story. Lizzy, the Composer? Ridiculous.”

Jelena shrugged. “Ridiculous or not, that’s what Necessarius is saying.”

“Yes, thank you both for summarizing the last ten minutes,” Pam snapped caustically.

I waved the waitress over—to my surprise, it wasn’t Lily. I had thought she had a shift right now. “Irish coffee, please.” As the giantess sashayed away, I turned my attention back to my friends. “The Big Boss is saying the Paladins personally fought the Composer, but I still can’t believe it.”

Yolanda perked up. “Wait, they were able to identify Lizzy on sight? That must mean they’re people we know! No wonder my uncle has been so tight-lipped…”

But Veda shook her head, ears turned down. “Lizzy’s pretty well known. Recognizing her doesn’t mean much.”

“Well that’s no fun,” my girlfriend said with an adorable pout. “Guessing who they are would’ve been interesting.”

My girlfriend…I was still getting used to that. This was the first relationship I had ever had that lasted more than a couple nights. I kept expecting her to tell me she had had enough, and was leaving.

“But it’s just like you said,” Delphie insisted. “This isn’t some random rumor. The ‘sarians have released multiple statements, all claiming the exact same thing. Butler’s going on the news tonight to confirm it. It just seems too much if they’re anything but a hundred percent sure.”

Our Glasyan started to speak, and I almost jumped out of my seat. Ever since the gargants, she terrified me. We had already assumed the fey could see or hear through her, but that incident had made it clear that they could do much more than that.

Luckily, Jelena didn’t seem to notice. “I think everyone needs to just wait and see. If she’s running, it means she’s guilty of something, right?”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Now you’re just being silly. You know better than that. Someone says they’re going to kill you, you run. Doesn’t matter whether you actual did what they’re accusing you of or not.”

“Let’s change the subject,” Seena said quickly, probably anticipating that the bland baseline was about to fall into another Darwinist rant. “Delphie, didn’t you say your sister’s daughter was coming over?”

“Her son,” the murid corrected. “Leon. He’ll be at my room when I get back.”

“Did you tell Zusa?”

“Ugh, I knew I forgot something…”

“Well, he’s just a kid, right?” Jelena asked. “So when he knocks on your door, she’s not gonna think he’s some kind of pervert and slam the door in his face.”

“But he is a pervert. He’s a worse skirt-chaser than his dad, and he’s still ten.”

Seena drummed her fingers on the table, a thoughtful look on her face. “But…didn’t Theo eventually marry your sister? Before he got killed, I mean.”

“Just engaged, but that’s my point. I have no hope of Leon ever settling down.”

Yolanda looked worried. “Zusa won’t…hurt him, right?”

Delphie thought about it. “I don’t know, normally I’d say no way…but he’s pretty aggressive, and she’s a Nosferatu. She’s got poison in those claws, I’m pretty sure, and he doesn’t have the buffs to survive that.”

“I can’t see her having poison,” Veda put in, as she finally pocketed her phone. “She’ll scratch him up a little, but he’ll be fine. Learn a lesson, too.”

“She has poison,” Kevin said, in a tone that made it clear he wasn’t guessing. “It’s painful, but just paralytic.”

The cherve nodded, her ears twitching. “See? He’ll be fine.”

“Maybe Kevin and I should head back early,” Steve mused, putting his arms behind his head. “Head him off, keep him from doing anything stupid.”

Jelena cocked her head. “I thought we just decided to let it be.”

The big baseline shrugged. “Pervert or not, I don’t think we should let a little kid get hurt if we can help it. How would any of your feel if it was your son?”

The Glasyan adjusted her daygoggles a little haughtily. “My son isn’t a skirt chaser.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. If you found out one of your kids got hurt, would you care why?”

“Maybe,” I admitted. “Maybe not. But Leon wasn’t raised in an orphanage. His mother knows him.”

Steve looked like he wasn’t sure if I was agreeing with him or not, but continued anyway. “Right. She has more of a connection to him than most parents. She’s liable to kill anyone who tries to hurt him, whether he deserves it or not.”

Jelena sighed and turned to the murid. “Delphie, I met Melanie a grand total of twice. Is she gonna be irrational if Leon gets hurt?”

Delphie winced. “Ah…that depends. Honestly, probably not, but that’s not a chance you want to take.”

Steve stood up and placed some money on the table for his drink. “It’s decided, then. Kevin, let’s go.”

Seena spoke up. “You two are armed, right? Whoever’s responsible, there’s blood on the streets.”

The South-American grabbed his coat off his chair back as he stood. “Yeah, I got my Raaze, and Steve’s got some bigger stuff if we need it. Simon, you coming?”

I waved his question away. “I just got here. I can stay a bit longer.”

Both men shrugged, and headed off to the dorms. I belatedly realized they had forgotten to ask what Leon looked like, but it probably wouldn’t matter.

The conversation strayed to other topics, and eventually Veda started arguing with Jelena about some game Lizzy had helped voice. Something about how Lizzy was pigeonholed into only having parts with her exact personality—sweet and ditzy, mostly.

I was only paying attention with half an ear, but it did get me thinking. I wasn’t close friends with her or anything, but I did feel like I knew Lizzy pretty well. She had come to a couple of my birthday parties, given me some crappy gifts that I loved, but had fallen apart because they were made out of cheap materials.

I smiled a little. Yeah, she made mistakes like that all the time, but she was still a good person. Imagining her as the Composer was completely impossible. It just seemed goofy whenever I pictured it. What would she make the screamers do? Go shopping for her? Nine Hells, I couldn’t even—

My smile turned to a frown as a thought occurred to me.

That couldn’t be right. I mean, it just…

I searched my memory frantically, but couldn’t think of anything. It didn’t mean much, but…

I couldn’t think of a single malicious or selfish thing Elizabeth Greene had ever done. Not one. That was…

Impossible. No one was that perfect.

It was like Lizzy was a character invented by someone who didn’t really understand how complex people were.

I held Yolanda’s arm a little tighter, suddenly cold.

Necessarius’ accusations didn’t seem quite so unlikely after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 114)

Not completely satisfied with this one, but it came out well enough.

Scene 113 – Negatio

NEGATIO

SEENA

“It’s in excessively poor taste,” I said, sipping my drink through the curled straw.

Yolanda shook her had, frowning. “I don’t know, Seena…Necessarius wouldn’t lie like that.”

“I’m with the demon,” Veda admitted. “I mean, I could understand them hiding it, or something like that. But flat-out naming a girl as the Composer seems way too serious to be some sort of propaganda.”

“But it’s Lizzy,” I insisted. “There’s no way she would hurt a fly. Steve, you’ve met her, right? Other than that gargant thing, I mean.”

The big baseline nodded. “I have. She’s needed a courier more than once. I can’t believe that she would be the Composer. It’s…” he shook his head. “It’s impossible to even consider.”

Delphie just sighed. “Guys, its a weird situation. We don’t know what’s going on. I mean, super powers are involved.”

“She’s got a point,” Jelena put in. “The prevailing theory on the internet is that the Composer is some sort of body-jumper, and Greene is just the latest victim.”

“I think I’d prefer if it really was her,” Pam mused. “I don’t like the idea of someone able to just jump into my body whenever they feel like it.”

I snorted. “Whatever happened to all that Darwinist crap about weeding out the weak?”

The baseline scowled. “Don’t do that. This is different.”

“Why? Because you can’t defend against it?”

“No, because it takes away free will. I have the same problem with those mind-control pheromones they’re working on.”

Delphie blinked. “Wait, the what?”

I ignored the murid. “And what, death doesn’t take away freedom?”

She met my gaze evenly. “Death is inevitable for everyone; moving around when someone dies—that is, killing them—is morally inconsequential. Mind control is not inevitable. It is a deliberate assault on the freedoms of another.”

Yolanda put her head on the table. “Velvet hell, can we please not get into another argument? Especially not the old Darwinist/Transhumanist one. It seems like all we do these days is argue.”

Our resident deer kemo just shrugged. “We live in difficult times. It’s to be expected that everyone will have a different idea how to fix it.”

The succubus waved her hand. “Let’s at least change the subject. Since Lizzy is the Composer—”

“She’s not,” Steve cut in instantly.

“…okay, fine. Since Lizzy is being mind controlled by the Composer or whatever, what does that mean? What will change?”

Veda checked something on her phone and answered without looking up. “It probably means the ‘sarians will shoot her in the face, and then she’ll jump to a new body.”

“Why are we even talking about this?” I muttered. “Let’s ignore the ridiculousness of Lizzy doing anything violent. It’s not our fight.”

“She’s your friend though, right?” Yolanda asked with a quirk of her head. “You have to think about this at least a little. What will you do if you see her again?”

“I…” I adjusted my daygoggles, stalling for time. “I…”

“Hey guys, look at this.” Veda leaned forward, showing her phone to all of us. I leaned forward, eager for any escape from the uncomfortable questions.

The small screen had a picture of a blood-drenched room, with what looked like bodies strewn everywhere, though it was hard to really tell at that size.

Jelena frowned. “I can’t even tell what that is. A murder scene?”

The cherve nodded. “Yeah, over in West Central. An inn got hit, and everyone’s dead.”

I narrowed my eyes, though I doubt anyone would have noticed. “I see where this is going. You think Lizzy did it?”

Veda shrugged. “You tell me. I think it’s that inn you said she likes—Thor’s Rest?”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Steve said with a barely-contained snarl. “It could easily be a coincidence.”

She shrugged again. “Maybe. But the Hammer himself was there.”

Kevin, who had thus far been completely silent, occupied with his drink, looked up in shock. “Mjolnir was there?”

“Apparently he moonlights as a bouncer, for whatever reason. He was killed too, his heart ripped right out of his chest.”

“Gods of men and darkness,” Pam whispered, a look of horror on her face that was mirrored by Kevin’s expression. “If she killed Thor’s Hammer…”

Kevin looked like he was about to throw up. “He was the strongest warrior the giants had. If he could be defeated…”

“Bleeding dusk, that’s not the point!” Jelena snapped, pounding her fist on the table hard enough to make our drinks jump. Thankfully, none of them fell over. “That stupid old titan was the only thing keeping the culture from descending into all-out war. He was dating a Jotuun, and his sister was a troll. With one murder, that’s all gone. The giants are finished unless someone starts damage control right now.”

“And she’ll be doing the opposite,” I noted with a sigh, familiar with the tactic to some point. The Mals taught that assassination wasn’t enough; you had to make sure the target’s death made enough of a splash so they couldn’t just be replaced. Lizzy…the Composer would make sure this didn’t go smoothly.

“Why do I have the feeling our lives are suddenly a lot more complicated?” Delphie said with a sigh. “Lizzy has always been a bit unpredictable, but now…”

“It’s not her,” Steve insisted. “Stop saying its her. Its not.”

I leaned back in my chair, staring up at the sky.

“Maybe, maybe not. But something is going to change, no matter what.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 113)

Short, yes. Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 95 – Solutio

SOLUTIO

JELENA

The iron-lord was still grasping around for us. Why? It didn’t make any sense. It should have abandoned us for easier prey within minutes. Instead, it had stuck around for over an hour.

I kept hearing explosions outside, which just made it even stranger. If people were attacking the thing, it would return the favor. Unless everyone was focusing their fire on the blind-rammer, which was possible, but unlikely.

I needed to get out there. I had to figure out what was going on, and sitting here wouldn’t help. I pulled off my daygoggles and started inching forward across the suddenly bright room.

“Jelena!” Pam hissed from behind me. “What are you doing?

“I’m gonna see if I can help,” I called back. “Stay here with the others.”

“But you can’t! You’re—” She suddenly stopped talking, and I had to glance back to assure myself she hadn’t been crushed.

She was still alive and well, but she looked like she had tasted something horrible in her mouth—so about her default expression, only more so. She had been about to say something. Something important.

Well, if she thought it could wait, I guess I agreed. I turned back to the task at hand, absently scratching at my neck.

My entire spine had been itching ever since the fey released me. Glasya had looked me over personally, and had assured me that nothing was wrong, so I suppose I got off light. A little bit of phantom pain was nothing compared to what Fevered Day could have done to me.

It was slow going, getting past the gargant, since I had to stop every few feet to wait for its thrashing hand to sweep past. My hands and knees were bleeding by the time I reached the entrance, the shattered glass from the doors having cut deeply into my flesh. I glanced at the wounds briefly, then resolved to ignore them. They were clotted with concrete dust and the glass fragments were still embedded in some places, but I had enough buffs so that the pain was minimal and I didn’t have to worry too much about bleeding out.

The iron-lord’s hand lunged towards me, and I dove out of the way again, out the shattered front doors. I landed on more glass, scraping up my side and tearing my clothes.

Bloody night…I wasn’t built for this. I was a secretary with a sharp ear, that’s all. The closest thing to combat I had seen was that time my orphanage managed to score tickets to laser tag. I was on the losing team.

But I had to do something. No one else was. Especially not the whore, Yolanda. Last I had seen her, she had been huddled in Simon’s embrace, trembling like a leaf. Maybe her queen would save her.

I heard voices nearby. Not from inside the store, where the gargant was still rooting around, but from somewhere down the street. One of them, soft as down feathers, drifted through the clamor of injured and dying civilians.

“I told you we should have stayed on the roof.”

“No, Seena, it would have just climbed up and killed us, and we wouldn’t have had anywhere to run.”

Adam and the others. They had found something, then. Some sort of weapon.

“Aim for the knees,” another, somewhat familiar voice suggested. It was…Steve? Simon’s roommate? What was he doing here? “That’ll do the trick.”

“I know killing,” Adam grunted. “I know what to do.”

“Frost and—God dammit, just hurry up. The blind-rammer looks like it’s coming this way.”

The fourth voice sounded familiar as well, but I couldn’t place it. Male, definitely, but other than that I couldn’t tell. ‘Frost and fire’ was a Jotuun curse, so he was probably one of the Nifs.

The Nifs weren’t supposed to be in the area, but it wasn’t all that surprising. The cultures spied on each other as much as possible, both for defensive and offensive reasons. I was more interested in what Joel and Nathan, the local feuding warlords, would do when they found out. Would they leave them alone, or retaliate? Both canes had a reputation for being warmongers, but they had to know better than to piss off Niflheim.

That wasn’t important now; Seena’s group was talking again, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I crept towards the voices, trying to get a better look, maybe let them know I was here, but I winced at my wounds. Buffs or no, having little pebbles of glass embedded in your flesh, slicing through skin and muscle, etching bone…

Stop it, I told myself. That kind of thinking was hardly productive. Pushing the pain to the back of my mind, I turned the corner and found…

Steve and Kevin, Simon’s roommates. And Seena, Veda, and Adam, of course. The green-haired baseline was nowhere to be found.

I glanced around as I scrambled to my feet. “Where’s the Nif?”

Adam turned to me, frowning. “You are…”

“Jelena, my roommate,” Veda supplied. “She was trapped with the others.” A look of apprehension crossed her face, and she cursed. “Fangs and—it didn’t destroy the building, did it?”

“No, it was still just trying to grab people last time I checked.” I shifted on my feet and winced as my wounds were pulled.

Seena stepped forward and looked at my side. “You look like you ran through all nine hells. What happened?”

I started to shrug, but immediately stopped from the pain. “Had some trouble.”

The Mal glanced back at the others. “You need to take down that gargant right away,” she said firmly. “It’s not going to be distracted forever.”

“There’s still the blind-rammer,” Kevin noted. I blinked when he spoke; I recognized his voice as the one I hadn’t been able to identify from before. Why was he using Jotuun curses? He wasn’t a giant.

It was probably just some stupid thing. Simon and Seena used demon curses because their orphan patron had been one, so maybe it was something like that. It really wasn’t important right now, anyway.

“The rammer is secondary, right?” I asked a little hesitantly. Yeah, as a Glasyan I knew a bit more about monsters and such than the average person, but I’ve always found personal applications of the toy maker more interesting than the whole creating monsters part.

The fact that everyone else just kind of looked at each other didn’t help my anxiety.

“I’ve never seen one of those things,” Adam said, as he hefted what looked like a missile launcher covered in tubes over his shoulder. “Monsters aren’t quite my area of expertise…”

“I…think it’s relatively safe,” Veda muttered haltingly. “I mean, it doesn’t seem to be doing anything all that dangerous. It doesn’t even have eyes.” She glanced at Steve.

The big baseline raised his hands in front of himself to ward off her attentions. “Hey, don’t look at me, I’m a bike messenger. I don’t know the first thing about monsters.”

“I think…” a voice like warm honey said haltingly from behind me. “I think it might be looking for someone.”

Surprised, we all turned to see Elizabeth Greene, of all people, leaning against the building dejectedly. She was wearing a long, flowing dark blue skirt and a short-sleeved white shift with a black corset over the top. The corset turned her already somewhat impressive bust into something truly marvelous. To my surprise, she also had a fake flower in her golden hair, behind her ear. It was the same deep, royal blue of Akane Akiyama’s hair ribbon.

But while her outfit was still perfect, her entire stance and bearing spoke of someone who had taken on the world and lost. Her face lacked her usual smile, and her glittering golden eyes seemed on the verge of tears.

“Miss Greene,” Steve said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled, just the tiniest bit, but at least it meant she wasn’t completely defeated. “Mister Gillespie…I need you to deliver another message for me, I think.”

The large man nodded, as Kevin and I moved forward to catch the girl before she fell. “Of course, of course. Whatever you need.”

But Kevin frowned. “Wait, she said the blind-rammer was looking for someone. What—”

Seena punched him in the arm. “Let her talk. She’ll get to it.”

Chastised, he shut his mouth and nodded.

Lizzy smiled again in his direction. “It’s fine, I understand…” she shook her head. “I need to sit down. It’s…been a long day.”

We guided her carefully to the ground, trying to ignore the sounds of gunfire nearby, and the still-roaring iron-lord. We didn’t have much time, but we still had to be careful with her.

The girl took a deep breath, and when she spoke there was some strength in her voice. “Gillespie, I need you to find Nabassu. He should be at his apartments. Tell him what’s going on here, leave nothing out. He’ll be able to organize everything.”

“At once,” Steve said, and immediately ran off at top speed around the corner. I turned to watch him go, surprised that such a big guy could run so fast.

“About the one over there…” Lizzy began weakly, and I was forced to turn my attention back to her. “The big metal thing is just a distraction. I don’t think the fey want to cause too much damage, they just want it to look like they do.”

My spine was itching like crazy, and I reached back to scratch it as subtly as possible.

But Adam was the one who spoke. “So…ignore the iron-lord for now? After all the trouble we went to to get a weapon?”

The girl on the ground nodded. “It’s the other one…the blind one—”

“Blind-rammer,” Seena supplied.

“Right, that one. Nabassu told me the fey use them to track people sometimes. Like, when they just need to find them, and don’t have to worry about subtlety.”

Adam nodded. “I think I heard Simon or Yolanda mention that…something about them having extra nostrils?”

Lizzy shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know that the fey want something here.”

I shook my head. “But this isn’t their style. Why send something like this when a couple dogs would work just as well?”

“I don’t know,” Adam muttered, rubbing his forehead. “Laura might be able to figure it out, but I just…this isn’t anything any of us are good at.” He shook his head suddenly. “It doesn’t matter. Once it finds its target, bad things will happen. So we need to kill it first.”

I indicated the weapon in his arms. “You were going to use that on the iron-lord, right? How many shots do you have?”

“Not many,” Veda cut in. “I didn’t have a lot to work with. I can’t be sure, but no more than five. Absolute max.”

Oh, that’s right, she was a mechanic or an engineer or whatever. I had completely forgotten. I guess…she had made the weapon? How the hell did she cobble together a missile launcher out of spare parts?

Adam saw where I was going. “It should work just as well on the rammer, if not better. And we should just need one or two for the iron-lord.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow. “So, what, just shoot it in the face and hope it works?”

The bland baseline shrugged. “I guess so.”

“The belly,” I said suddenly. “Aim for the belly. That’s the weak spot.”

Everyone stared at me. “What?” Seena asked weakly.

Where had that come from? But the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. “The belly drags on the ground—it can’t be armored as much.”

“That makes sense…” Adam said slowly. “But I’m not gonna just dive under it.”

“Explosions will scare it and make it rear up. But it has to be a big one.”

“A grenade wouldn’t be enough?”

“Not nearly. Maybe a…” an image flashed into my mind, a dull metal barrel with a white label saying ’55 gallons.’ “An oil drum would work. There should be one in this building here.”

Seena looked disturbed and was avoiding my eyes, but I couldn’t understand why. I spent a lot of time paying attention to important people; I had probably just heard about this on some forum or whatever and forgotten until now.

Kevin broke down the door pretty easily (the security gate wasn’t even up), and in a few moments he and Adam were wrestling an oil drum, exactly like the image I had in my head, out onto the sidewalk.

Lizzy wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, oil. I hate that stuff.”

“Well, don’t go in there, then. The place is full of the stuff.” Adam frowned. “Why the hell is there so much, anyway?”

“There are three offshore oil platforms owned by the city,” I found myself saying, as I suddenly remembered. “Two are owned by Yamatoto Silver Rush, while the third is the property of Fillian Andrews Enterprises, which is a front for—”

“I think he meant why is it here,” Kevin interrupted hastily. “The outer city would be more logical.”

Again, I knew the answer. “Money laundering.”

It was odd. Usually I kept an ear out for all the dirty rumors, of course, but this was more than that. I knew the barrels would be there, I knew where they had come from. But I didn’t remember hearing anything about it before right this moment.

Ugh, there I went, getting distracted again. Delphie and the others inside were counting on us, and I was letting my mind wander. “Roll it over at the gargant,” I instructed. “The smell should make it curious. Anyone have incendiary rounds?”

The boys had the barrel on its side, but hadn’t started rolling it yet. Adam put his foot on it to keep it from moving, and fished a shotgun shell out of one of his ammo pouches. “I have a few, but I’m not sure they can penetrate the drum.”

“My Raaze is incendiary,” Kevin said, pulling out the strange pistol in question. It was…a revolver, except it didn’t revolve, and fired all the chambers at once. “It should work.”

Adam shrugged. “Sounds good to me.” He picked up the missile launcher again from where he had placed it on the ground. “You ready?”

The small Southern-American baseline checked his gun and nodded. “Ready.” Together, they kicked the barrel forward, where it slowly rolled towards the blind-rammer.

The gargant was facing the other way, but its strong sense of smell caused it to notice the oil quickly, just as I had anticipated. It turned as the barrel rolled down the street, sniffing the air and edging towards the item that had piqued its curiosity.

“Now,” I hissed.

I don’t know if Kevin heard me or if he just came to the same conclusion I had. But the gargant was in the perfect position now, its face just a few feet from the barrel, so this was the perfect opportunity. He raised his gun, sighted carefully, and fired.

His aim was dead on, which was good since he only had the one shot. There was a slight ding as the rounds hit the metal barrel, then the dull whumph of the explosion. I dived out of the way quickly; while we were far enough so that we didn’t even feel the heat, I had completely forgotten about the explosion. Shrapnel flew by, and a piece even clipped my shoulder.

Luckily, the others were fine, though there was one large piece of red-hot metal embedded in the wall behind Lizzy. It was probably a miracle she was still alive.

While I was glancing around, making sure everyone was okay, Adam was all business. My prediction had proven correct; the blind-rammer was rearing up on its hind legs, its instinctive response to a loud noise exposing its unprotected underbelly. Adam didn’t waste any time. He went down on one knee, aimed, and fired.

The missile sped off with a small boom, leaving a cloud of foul-smelling exhaust behind Adam. He didn’t lower the launcher, but watched as the projectile crawled a path through the air towards the beast.

And, just as the gargant began to bring itself down from its precarious position, the missile hit.

The explosion was very strange, but I should have expected that. I don’t know what Veda did to it, but instead of exploding in fire, it burst into a cloud of a dark blue gas that seemed to freeze the gargant’s scales where it touched. Not that it mattered. The force of the missile itself had torn open a huge hole in the beast’s flesh, and now blood and guts were beginning to spill.

The blind-rammer began to wobble, clearly in pain but unable to scream in torment. It smashed sideways into the nearest building, causing the ‘scraper to groan, then smashed into the opposite side of the street, leaving massive puddles of gore underneath it.

It tried to smash the other side again, perhaps in an attempt to shake off whatever it thought was damaging it, but at this point it had lost too much blood.

The gargant fell to the ground, shaking the entire street so much that I almost lost my footing. It shuddered once, and died with a wet gurgle.

Just as I thought everything was going to work out, there was a great roar from behind me, and I turned to see the iron-lord had finally given up on our friends in the clothing shop, and had decided that we were the more important targets. Was this the fey’s doing? I had no idea how much control they had over their beasts.

Adam cursed and dodged behind the building where Lizzy was cowering, dropping the launcher in the process. But the gargant just smashed a fist into the building, raining down some glass and plaster but otherwise leaving us unharmed.

Everyone was scattered, in no position to fight back. But I…I hadn’t moved. I had stayed rooted to the spot for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. Despite my terror, I was only a few feet away from the bulky missile launcher.

I couldn’t possibly…could I?

I found myself running towards the weapon, as if something else was controlling my limbs. Then it was in my hands.

I didn’t know how to use a missile launcher. I had never used anything more complicated than a revolver.

But my hands flew across the metal tube as if possessed, flipping switches, reconnecting wires, and checking valves. The gargant was still roaring, and the falling glass was slicing into my skin, but I was unhurried. I could do this. I knew I could do this.

In just a few moments, I was done. The weapon began to hum as whatever power source Veda added began to work again; something had been knocked loose when Adam dropped it, but I had fixed it. How, though? I didn’t know anything about fixing anything, much less a jury-rigged missile launcher built out of what looked like an old air conditioner.

But while my mind was still asking questions, my body was moving like a well-oiled machine. I went down on one knee, just like Adam had earlier, ignoring the glass pebbles getting embedded into my leg. I raised the weapon carefully, sighted through the large, bulky scope, and…

Waited. The gargant was at a bad angle; I couldn’t hit its legs from this position. I didn’t have enough shots—I needed to get the knees. I briefly considered repositioning myself, but then the iron-lord took a few steps forward, exposing its weak points perfectly.

I fired.

Even as the missile flew through the air, I was already aiming at the second knee, checking that the launcher was still working through nothing but touch. Without removing it from my shoulder, I was able to confirm that everything was still in place.

The missile hit, exploding once again into a cloud of blue gas. The iron-lord bellowed in pain as it tried to move and its knee shattered, bringing it thudding to the street in a lopsided position. It struggled to grab hold of the nearby buildings and prop itself up, but it ended up just clawing off more glass and plaster. I didn’t give it a chance to find a better hold.

I fired again.

The second shot was also dead-on, and the beast fell flat on it’s face without any leg to stand on.

But it wasn’t dead, not yet. The ‘blood’ used by the creature was more like oil than anything else, and it would take too long to let it bleed out. It was moaning now, a deep and dejected song that made my teeth shiver. It was like it was begging for death.

I checked the launcher one last time, this time taking it off my shoulder and inspecting it visually. Despite my unfamiliarity with weapons, I knew to be very careful. Jury-rigged weapons had a tendency to explode if something came loose at the wrong moment, so I didn’t rush.

Finally, I was as certain as I could be that it wouldn’t kill me on the next shot. I raised the launcher to my shoulder again, took aim, and waited. Slowly, the gargant raised its head and looked at me, as if intentionally giving me exactly the opportunity I had been waiting for.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, the targeting reticule centered on the monster’s face.

Right before the missile hit, the iron-lord gargant gave one last pitiful moan.

Then the projectile exploded in that dull whumph, and the head was suddenly covered in frost.

The beast wobbled for a moment, some last signal from its frozen brain telling its arms to keep it upright, until its elbows went limp and let its face smash into the concrete. Frozen metal and shattered asphalt flew everywhere.

I put the missile launcher down slowly and settled down on my rear, suddenly very, very tired. Wherever those reserves of strength had come from, they were gone now. Was this what they called an adrenaline crash?

I turned to the others, smiling a bit weakly, hoping they would be willing to help me limp back to my room and take a very long shower.

But all I saw was Seena, staring at me in horror.

Behind the Scenes (scene 95)

Yes, it is an odd coincidence that all these people who knew each other were within about two blocks of each other all at the same time. It is not a coincidence that this is the moment the fey chose to attack.

Also, I was originally going to do a fake ending for April Fool’s, but the site problems this weekend meant I didn’t have time to write it, and wouldn’t have felt comfortable posting it anyway.

Scene 85 – Iacet

IACET

KEVIN

My name is Kevin Irwin.

I am a Jotuun spy.

I don’t have any buffs or cosmos, but that’s the point. It wouldn’t be very subtle if I was three feet taller than everyone else. Passer is the common term, but I hate it. It implies I’m an assassin.

I was in my dorm room, with a depressed Simon and jolly (as usual) Steve. I had difficulty paying attention to Steve; despite his height, he was just baseline, and years of training forced me to memorize Simon’s every word, since he was the enemy.

Well, enemy was a bit strong. He wasn’t a Jotuun, and thus a potential threat. I was ordered to observe his movements—and those of his sister—but nothing more.

“Let me get this straight,” Steve said with a slow chuckle. “Your culture has some weird monster thing watching over your servers.”

“Correct,” Simon confirmed, sitting on his bed calmly. I was perched on my own mattress, the top bunk bed, where I got a good vantage of everything. Steve’s bed was under mine, but he was standing by the window.

“This creature didn’t know about the screamers or the Composer or anything.”

“Right. He seemed to be on bad terms with the Power.”

“Right, right…and he was scared of MC and the Servants for some reason.”

“I think he was just paranoid.”

Steve was smiling at some private joke. “Whatever. The point is…you agreed to talk to MC on his behalf. Quiz her on how far the ‘sarian research is coming, all that.”

“That’s about the size of it,” our sibriex roommate admitted calmly. He took a sip of his drink, as though we weren’t discussing anything more important than sports.

Steve laughed and rubbed his forehead. “Kevin, help me out here. Explain what an idiot he’s being.”

I shrugged nonchalantly, doing my best to quell my pounding heart. This was the most important discovery I had made since I found out Simon was working with a fey. If he used the same laptop for his interviews, the bug I’d planted would turn out to be completely invaluable.

“I don’t think its really that big a deal,” I lied smoothly. “Every culture has secrets. His talks.”

The large black man frowned, a rare sight. “No, I don’t mean about telling us about it. I mean the fact that he’s trying to screw over MC.”

“Hey, I’m not screwing her over!”

“Steve has a point,” I admonished. “Letting someone listen in on your conversation without telling her will be a breach of trust. You should consider just telling her.”

“Somehow, I don’t think Aramazd will appreciate that.”

“Hey don’t worry!” Steve said, slapping our roommate on the back jovially. “You said he was completely cut off from the outside world. He has to work with you.”

“Besides, it’s not like you have to tell MC you’re working with…” I waved my hand. “An abomination. If she would even consider him that. Just say he doesn’t get enough contact with people to feel comfortable talking to her.” I shrugged. “It’s true enough, right?”

Simon rubbed his forehead, finally showing some consternation at what was coming. “I really don’t want to trick MC at all. I mean, its MC.”

I snorted. “Five minutes ago you were willing to lie outright. Now a little bit of subterfuge is out of the question?”

“That’s different,” he insisted. “That was me fulfilling a promise.”

I shrugged. “You can make distinctions like that if you want. Doesn’t change what you’re doing.”

He threw up his hands. “So, what? I have a choice between screwing over someone who hasn’t seen another living soul in a month, or the most important woman in Domina?”

“Or just talk to the monster again,” Steve suggested as he sat down on his own bed. “Just explain that you don’t feel comfortable messing with MC.”

“Somehow I don’t think it will be that simple.”

I sighed again. “You have your choices laid out in front of you, Simon. Pick one, and accept the consequences.”

The purple sibriex nodded. “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to tell Aramazd it’s off.”

That was about when I realized that I was in the middle of convincing him to turn down a priceless espionage opportunity.

I sat bolt upright on my bed. “Wait, you can’t do that!”

Simon stared. “Wait, what? You just said—”

“I know what I said,” I snapped. “Look, your ‘rex buddy wants to discuss things with MC, right?”

He nodded slowly.

“And MC like debating with intelligent people, right?”

“Well, obviously, but…”

“So you just have to convince both of them its in their best interests to work together.” I shrugged. “Take the third option.”

He put his face in his hands. “Okay, okay. That’s…that actually makes sense.” He shook his head. “But leaving aside your schizo behavior, I really don’t think it will be that easy. Aramazd is really paranoid.”

I really needed to keep him from thinking about my actions. “Well, you only met him once, right?”

He frowned. “No. Didn’t I…no, I forgot to tell you. I met him last Friday. Talked to him a couple times since then, tried to work out a better solution. Didn’t work. He’s definitely scared of what MC will do to him.”

I heard Steve giggle. “But c’mon. It’s MC. What’s she gonna do? Cut off his cell service?”

I smiled grimly. “If you think that’s the worst she can do, I invite you to see what happens if you piss her off.”

Steve laughed, and I heard rustling from his bed. Judging from Simon’s reaction, he was gearing up for a full-blown argument.

“Settle down, guys,” he advised. “I’ll figure something out.” He bit his lip. “I’ll talk to Jelena. She’s good at politics.”

“Yeah, but she’s a spy for the fey now, right?”

“True. Even though no one has the heart to tell her.” The sibriex frowned at me. “Wait, how’d you know that?”

Inwardly, I cursed at my own stupidity, but I kept my calm and just shrugged nonchalantly as I quickly came up with a believable lie. “You mentioned it earlier.”

Simon waved his hand. “Whatever. You’re right, she’s out. I guess I’ll have to deal with it myself.”

“The ferret girl might be helpful,” Steve noted, snapping his fingers as he thought of the idea. “The one rooming with Delphie.”

Our roommate cocked his head. “You mean Zusa? She didn’t strike me as the type to have any experience in this area.”

“Well, she’s the friendliest of the bunch. Might be able to give you a little advice.”

“Better than you two, at least,” Simon muttered. “At least she’s sane enough to not do a complete 180 halfway through the conversation.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Steve cautioned with mock seriousness. “She is a woman.”

The sibriex sighed. “That makes one thing easy, at least.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“I was considering bringing you guys along for advice when I talk to her.” He smiled grimly. “I’ve changed my mind.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 85)

Oof, this one…not the best. But it serves.

Scene 28 – Oblitus

OBLITUS

SIMON

I blinked. “Oh hell, we forgot Akane’s birthday!”

Seena turned and looked at me from where she lay on my roommate’s bed. The lower bed, that is. I had two roommates, and I had gotten the single, while they were stuck with the bunks. “Were we even invited to that? You’re still not exactly her favorite person.”

I tossed my laptop onto my pillow and rubbed my hair back. “Yeah, we were invited. Derek made me promise to not do anything.” I shrugged. “It was mostly to get you there.”

Jelena, also on the lower bunk, looked up from where her head lay on a very embarrassed Yolanda’s lap. “Which one is Akane again? The angry Japanese giant?”

Ugh. Her. “No, that was Umeko. Although she goes by Konoko ever since she became a warlord…” I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Anyway, Akane is Derek’s…something.” I frowned. “You’ve met her, right? The quiet girl with the sword.”

The Glasyan ran her hands through her white-and-black streaked hair and frowned. “…no. No, not that I remember.”

“It was when Derek saved us from that grue,” Delphie reminded her. “She was the one carrying the strobe light.”

Jelena snorted and tapped her daygoggles. “Well, no wonder I don’t remember. The light knocked me out. I lost about six hours.”

The murid, sitting on the upper bunk, just continued laying on her back, petting a small mouse. “I seem to remember you forcing me to track him down so you could ‘thank him properly.’ She was the girl standing next to him when you took off your top.”

Ohh…” the vampire cooed. “That’s right. So it’s her birthday?”

“Yeah. It’s just seven floors down. But if we go now, we’d be crashing the party.”

I saw her doing some quick math in her head. “Wait, she’s actually on the sixth floor? I thought it was just storage.”

“That’s just room sixty-six,” Yolanda said quietly. “For obvious reasons.”

Jelena snuggled a little deeper into the demon’s lap, making herself more comfortable. Yolanda, on the other hand, just started blushing again. “I can understand that. Honestly, I think we’re lucky we even got floor thirteen at all.”

Delphie let her mouse go, and it scurried down the bedpost and out the open door. “What floor are you guys on, again?”

The Glasyan opened her eyes, annoyed. “You were just up there earlier.”

“I know, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the floor number.”

“Twenty-nine. Why?”

“Just curious. I might want to visit or whatever.”

I stretched my legs out over the edge of the bed a bit and leaned back against the wall. “What about you, Delphie? What floor are you and Zusa on?”

“Fourteen.” She leaped down from the bunk, not even bothering with the rudimentary ladder that was more a consequence of the way the beds were stacked than anything intentional. “Which reminds me, I need to get back. Zuzu is getting back from a mission, and needed help with homework.”

“Well, okay,” I said as she walked out. “Don’t be a stranger.”

No one else said anything for a few minutes. Seena had her laptop, Yolanda her book, and Jelena was practically asleep already.

I shrugged, retrieved my own computer, and logged onto Fundie.

Even just glancing at a few blogs made it clear that things were deteriorating. The cultures were fighting, with civil wars popping up everywhere. The warlords were struggling to keep things under control, but they were only having limited luck.

I’m not a soldier, and I have no interest in becoming one. But even I could tell that the more the cultures fractured, the easier time the screamers would have. This was all just falling apart too well to be completely natural.

MC and others were cruising the internet as well, of course, trying to put out the worst fires, urging calm and composure instead of panic, but it wasn’t helping much. There were entire message boards dedicated to nothing but freaking out over the attacks.

It was all way too coordinated. Maybe it was just a couple trolls inciting things for kicks. Or maybe there really was someone behind it all. I was beginning to believe in that ridiculous ‘Composer’ meme, some super-zombie controller acting behind the scenes.

A blank chat window popped up.

I frowned. As the newest sibriex, getting messages from unknown demons was something I was used to. But this wasn’t that. The window was completely empty, which shouldn’t happen. Normally, it only popped up after someone messaged me. Not only that, but the spot where the name and avatar of the other person would normally be was blank.

Then a message appeared.

<Ever ever dies the storm.>

“Nine hells!” I spat vehemently. The girls all looked up, even Jelena, but I just smiled and waved away their worries. They shrugged and went back to what they were doing.

I had seen that phrase before, and suddenly knew exactly who was talking to me. I should have known from the start. No one else was that unnecessarily mysterious.

<Ever ever dies the night,> I typed back carefully, making sure to get the capitalization right. She was picky about that.

<Ever ever lies the fight> appeared next.

I took a deep breath and typed the last code phrase. <Ever ever lies the morn.>

Even through the impersonality of text, I could still feel her grinning. <Hello, Simon.>

I gulped before replying. <Hello, Honored Matron.>

I normally didn’t bother with the honorifics. It was one of the reasons I had become a sibriex in the first place; they didn’t care about any of those stupid titles. It was a place I could do my work without worrying about offending anyone.

But the Queen of Loveless, Matron of Night’s Northern Winter, cared. And offending a fey was never, ever a good idea. It was the middle of autumn, and day at that. Normally the fey didn’t stray out of their prescribed domains, but more and more I was finding that to be less than accurate propaganda.

<Always so polite,> the fey messaged back mockingly. <How is your sister?>

<Don’t talk about her,> I typed back angrily. <What do you want?>

<Well, you see, I have this egg I bought from a friend of mine…>

My heart nearly froze in my chest. I knew where this was going. <Don’t do that.>

<And I was thinking, “It’s practically a crime to just keep such a beautiful specimen in storage. I should really start growing it.”>

I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood. <stop>

<Applying toys to a fetus produces incredible results. Truly breathtaking.>

<stop talking>

<Of course, I suppose if I was distracted with something else, I wouldn’t have time…>

<WHAT do you WANT>

<First and foremost, punctuation,> she admonished.

I took a deep breath, wiped the blood off my lip, and typed again. <What do you need, Honored Matron?>

<That’s better. Is it really so hard to take an extra few moments to compose yourself?>

<Says the naked girl.>

<Oh! So you have a tongue in your head after all! I was beginning to wonder.> There was a pause, and I knew she was chuckling to herself. <But my choices of apparel—or lack thereof—are of no concern to you. I just need one little thing. And then I’ll be far too busy to play with the egg your sister sold to the Queen-Mother of Dayborn Light.>

I glanced across the room to Seena, still typing away at her own laptop.

Nine hells, what could she have been thinking, dealing with a fey? If I hadn’t managed to convince Loveless to buy the egg, Seena’s daughter would be running around town, filled to the gills with more toys than the Mother Monster herself.

But she was my sister. Protecting her was my job.

<What do you need?>

<Nothing much. I just need a copy of the sibriex’s Helix.>

Oh shit.

The Helix was a record of the toy maker experiments, as well as the buffs and cosmos of members. Every culture had one, usually only noting the more interesting creations they utilized. But more toy-centric cultures, like the sibriex, had extremely detailed records, both of the toys we had and the many experiments we had done. It wouldn’t be an understatement to call them state secrets; if the Glasyans or Clarke got their hands on it, the sibriex would be at a major disadvantage.

<Yes or no, Lancaster. You know the way this works.>

I didn’t have a choice.

<Yes.>

<Excellent! A courier will be by shortly with the flash drive. Just put it into the Helix system, and it will hack its way through quickly.>

<How long will it take?>

<Anywhere from five minutes to an hour, including the actual download. Sorry I can’t give more detail, but I just don’t know enough about the system to be sure. You have one week.>

The chat window disappeared, even though normally I would have to specifically cancel it out.

I sighed. Wonderful. What exactly had I gotten myself into this time?

A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door, despite the fact that it was already open a crack. “Hello?” a gruff voice called. “Everyone decent?”

“Yeah,” I answered, a little tiredly. “C’mon in.”

My roommates, Steve and Kevin walked in with only a little hesitation. Steve smiled at the girls. “Hello, all.”

He was a big black baseline with light brown skin and a shiny shaved head. He had a bit of fat around his belly, but mostly his size was the result of big bones and strong muscles. He was always smiling, and had a round face well-suited to it.

Kevin frowned a little at the girls, before climbing up onto his bunk and pulling out his laptop. He was a bit harder to read. He was a small South-American man, also baseline, and he didn’t talk much. But his sharp black eyes missed nothing, and when he did speak he did so with a tongue as sharp as a knife.

Seena looked up from her own laptop. “Hey there. Where were you guys?”

Steve shrugged. “Had a few jobs to do.” He a deep, gruff voice that didn’t match his personality at all. He had mentioned when he got drunk a few days ago that it scared the kids at his orphanage. “And Kevin tagged along as my bodyguard.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Wait, I thought you were out of ammo?”

My other roommate frowned from his bunk. “I was. Went out with him to get more. He’s just being weird.” He turned back to his laptop. “Didn’t find good prices, though. Just got a box for my pistol.”

That got Yolanda’s attention. “What do you use?”

“Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special.”

“Oh,” she scrunched up her face into an adorable frown. “I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.”

“Yeah, no one has,” he admitted. “That crazy lace who thinks she’s a dragon—”

“Gonna have to be more specific,” Jelena noted without even opening her eyes.

Kevin continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “She only made them on special order.” He unholstered it and dangled it down from his bunk; Yolanda took it carefully. “I’m sure you can see why.”

“Interesting design,” the demon girl noted dimly, as she turned the strange weapon over in her hands. It was built like a revolver, but it had five stationary barrels, arranged around a solid center.

I leaned forward to get a closer look. “How many shots do you get out of that thing?”

He chuckled lightly. “Just one. But if you use armor-piercing bullets, you can kill a warlord with that one shot. If you’re lucky.”

I whistled as Yolanda passed the weapon back up. “Now that’s a hand cannon.”

Jelena addressed the girl who’s lap she was laying in. “What’s Pam’s, again?”

“Standard Necessarian Saint Jude,” the demon answered promptly. “Though she said she also has a Black Knight ZF740 that she never uses.”

I bit my lip. “740…isn’t that the one with the manufacturing flaw? Explodes in your hands?”

“750,” she corrected. “But you can understand why she leaves it at home.”

“Let’s switch to a less violent topic,” Steve suggested. “What have you guys been up to all day?”

Yolanda shrugged. “Just reading. It’s a Saturday. Not much else to do.”

“We should probably get a present for Akane at some point,” Seena noted lazily.

“I’ll go out later and buy a sharpening set.”

My midnight-skinned sister turned and glared at me. “Are you an idiot? She has a billion of those. We need something more unique.”

I threw up my hands. “Well, I don’t know. What else is there? We’re not exactly rolling in cash, you know.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t have to be big. Something small and easy would work just as well.”

Steve blinked. “Huh. That reminds me.” He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a rolled-up small white envelope, like the kind people use for letters, and handed it to me. “Sorry about that. Courier office gave it to me about an hour ago, and it slipped my mind.”

Other than ‘Simon Lancaster’ written across the front in delicate script, the envelope was unmarked and still sealed. There was something inside, but I couldn’t quite tell what. It definitely wasn’t a letter, though. I opened it up and…

Pulled out a flash drive. The kind you plug into a USB port.

My big roommate raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t plug that into any computer you want to keep. Flash drives from anonymous sources—”

“It’s fine,” I said, swallowing my anxiety and willing my heartbeat to slow back to a normal pace. “I know who sent it.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 28)

The Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special is definitely not a real gun. However, it’s based off the much more plausible (but still fake) Tiamat Raaze 4.4, which is just an ordinary 4.4 caliber revolver.

Other than that, I really like how this one came out. I originally created Simon and Seena for little reason other than to have a few POV characters who didn’t know the Paladins’ secrets, but they’ve evolved into their own since.