Tag Archives: Vampires

Scene 312 – Ingens

INGENS

SEENA

“Noble Nyashk,” my majordomo said, bowing low. “May I introduce Detectives Abraham Gosling and Utako Tora, of Necessarius.”

The two people who stepped into the conference room were obviously Necessarius. While there was no formal dress code, Butler’s detectives liked to wear nice suits that could take a beating, in addition to the ‘sarian armbands and prominent guns. The man was baseline, while the woman was a kemo with just tiger ears.

The conference room was nothing special, just a big room with a long table and a nice wide window. The window was of course polarized to keep light out. It was only two or three—I hadn’t checked the clock—and the sun was high in the sky.

“Thank you,” I said to my majordomo. He bowed and left. I turned to the ‘sarians. “Badges, lawmen. I’ve been feeling paranoid of late.”

They both nodded and pulled out their badges, presenting them without complaint. I peered closely. They looked authentic enough. I could have someone check to make sure later, after they left.

“Thank you,” I said, sitting down. “How may I help you two today?”

They glanced at each other.

“Please, sit,” I said. “Did you want something to drink? We have water, iced tea, whatever you want.”

They took their chairs a little hesitantly, sitting across from me at the end of the table.

“Honored Noble,” the man said. Gosling. “There’s no easy way to say this…”

I sat up, a chill running down my spine. “Is Simon all right?”

“What? Yes! I mean—” He glanced at his partner. “Uh, we don’t know anything about your brother. Someone from our precinct was looking for him a few days ago for something unrelated, but couldn’t find him.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m sure that’s nothing. He’s been spending a lot of time with that girlfriend of his, Yolanda.” I smiled. “He had an… accident recently. He’s resting up a bit.”

“Right,” Tora said. “But that’s not what we came here to talk to you about.”

“This is a very strange situation,” Gosling said. He still looked hesitant. “I’m just going to come out and say it, because I don’t know how to soften the blow. There’s a gargant that’s been killing people.”

I smirked.

Gosling chuckled. “Okay, yeah, that sounds… redundant. But this one is acting like an assassin. Moving intelligently, killing specific people. The current theory is that the fey put a homunculus control module inside a gargant.”

I frowned. “I’m not sure that’s possible.” I shrugged. “Maybe you should go looking for my brother after all. He likes toy maker theory, though he’s not that great at the actual art of it all.”

“Regardless, its latest victim managed to rip a few hairs off it in the struggle. We had them tested, and…” He paused. “We found your DNA.”

I stared at him.

“What?” I said after a moment.

“Necessarius has your DNA on file. Pre-Nyashk, anyway. Something about a blood drive before they figured out how to clone blood with the toy maker—”

“Yes, yes, I know all about that,” I said tiredly. “But… a gargant can’t have my DNA. What did they do, clone me?”

The detectives glanced at each other again.

“Out with it,” I snapped.

“The gargant has half your DNA,” Tora said.

Half.

That was how much a child of mine would have.

Like the child I sold to the fey.

“Our first thought was that they stole a sample of your blood,” Tora said. “Mixed it up with whatever they wanted for the gargant. But we got a hit on the other half of the DNA, and…” She paused. “We can stop if you want.”

“Why would I want that?”

“Honored Noble,” Gosling said quietly. “You’re crying.”

My hand went to my cheek. I felt something wet there.

I sniffed and wiped the tears away and forced my voice to remain level. “Thank you for informing me of this, detectives. Is there anything else?”

Gosling nodded. “We didn’t come here just to tell you about… well. We have someone at the precinct with a scrying ability. Uh, that means he can—”

“See distant places,” I said. “Yes, I know. Several of my drakes have variants of it. I also know that it is rarely so convenient as to simply choose who you want to scry on. What do you want from me?”

“His ability is bloodline locked,” Tora said. “Or… bloodline boosted. Not sure about that. Anyway, if this gargant is… what we think it is, he should be able to use you as a focus for his power. Use you to find the gargant before it kills again.”

“He hasn’t had a chance to try it on a homunculus,” Gosling said. “So we’re not sure how it works with clones—”

“The gargant is not a clone.”

The detectives didn’t say anything. They had suspected, but hadn’t wanted to step out of place by saying it aloud.

“How urgent is this?” I asked after a moment.

Very,” Gosling said. “We haven’t been able to determine any sort of pattern for the attacks. Sometimes they come within just a few days of each other.”

“Oh, good.”

He stared at me. “Good?

“I just wanted to know if I should wake up Zepar and go with you right now. I’m the only Noble awake at the moment.”

“Oh.” He relaxed. “Okay, that’s fine. So you want to do this tonight?”

“We can even bring him here, if that would make things easier,” Tora added.

I considered it. “No, I will go to meet him. I will be safer than he would be. Besides, I’ve been cooped up in here for too long.”

They both nodded in agreement.

“Is ten PM a good time?” I asked, rising.

They rose as well. “That should be fine,” Gosling said. “I’ll double-check that he’ll still be around and give your secretary a call.”

“You can get his card—”

Gosling flipped out a card. “Got it right here.”

I smiled. “Of course. Thank you both for your attention to detail on this investigation.” I frowned. “Actually, I am curious. Why are you involved in this at all? I thought I heard something about the Paladins and their retinue investigating a string of gargant attacks.”

They exchanged a look again.

I rolled my eyes. “Detectives…”

Tora winced, her ears laying flat against her head. “The retinue…” She shook her head. “They’re having problems. Don’t know the full details. But we got the case because it intersected one of ours. Pure coincidence, really.”

“Ah. Well.” I indicated the door. “Please, see yourselves out. I am sure you have much to do today, and I would like to rest up for tonight.”

They both bowed slightly and left.

I collapsed into a chair the second the door closed.

I put my face in my hands. How long was this going to come back to haunt me? One mistake—a big mistake, but still just one—made years ago. I should never have dealt with the fey. I should have taken off running in the opposite direction the second I had seen that naked bitch.

At least the ‘new’ fey were showing their true colors now. Using an old project to attack innocent people didn’t fit with their friendly new ‘culture.’ Well, okay, innocent was a nebulous concept in Domina City, but—

I frowned. Wait one second.

I flipped out my phone and called the front desk. “Have the ‘sarians left yet?” I asked without preamble.

The secretary sounded surprised. “Uh, yes. They just left. Two seconds ago.”

“Bring them back in.”

“Honored Noble, I don’t have my daygoggles, I’ll need to fetch someone—”

Now.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.” There was a pause, then he returned, out of breath. “They are on their way, Honored Noble.”

“Thank you.” I took a deep breath. “I promise, this is important.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

I smiled. “Of course not.” I hung up.

A few minutes later, the detectives walked back into the conference room, looking confused.

“Apologies,” I said with a smile. “But I thought of something I would like to ask.”

“All right,” Gosling said. I didn’t sit, so neither did they.

“This gargant,” I said. “My—” I couldn’t say it. “This gargant. You said there’s no pattern to its attacks. But is there a pattern to its victims?

“Possibly,” Tora said, still confused. “Where are you going with this?”

“Are they all criminals?” I asked. “People who couldn’t be touched through normal channels for whatever reason.” I shook my head. “I don’t even know what I’m asking. Maybe they were escaped criminals who changed their faces or something.”

“Or something,” Gosling said. He kept his face impassive. But I could smell something from him—sweat, mixed with something else. I wasn’t good at determining emotions from scents, but there was something there.

Tora shook her head. “Honored Noble, where is this coming from?”

“I was thinking about the fey,” I said. “They’ve stopped their Hunts. They never act aggressively, but they fight ruthlessly when on the defensive. They’re trying as hard as they can to look like a respectable culture.”

The detectives didn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell if they hadn’t figured it out, or if they just didn’t want to accidentally give me any clues.

“That means that whatever they’re doing with this gargant, they think it’s important. Either important enough to their culture to risk their reputation, or important enough to the city that they’ll be vindicated in the end.”

Gosling shuffled on his feet. “…everyone knows that the fey are crazy,” he said after a moment.

“And everyone used to know the world was flat,” I said. “The fey often have insane goals, but their means are always simple and logical enough. If you want to cause chaos, unleashing hordes of monsters works perfectly. The fact that they have soldiers and so on is proof of that.”

“How are soldiers proof of chaos?” Tora asked.

“I mean proof that they’re rational,” I said. That had gotten away from me a bit. “The monsters weren’t cutting it, so they got soldiers. And apparently that wasn’t working either, so they got a new type of gargant.” I shook my head. “Why my baby, I have no idea. Maybe they wanted to draw my attention for some reason. Who knows. The point is, there has to be a pattern.”

Gosling glanced at Tora. “Are we allowed to tell her?”

Tora closed her eyes. “I have no idea. The boss will get pissed if we bother her with this. She’s still busy entertaining the Senator.”

Gosling scratched his head. “Honored Noble. What I am about to tell you is top secret. If there are any recording devices in this room, you need to turn them off.”

I flipped out my phone and pressed a few buttons. “There we go. All off.”

He still looked hesitant, but he nodded. “Okay. It’s simple, really. The gargant is attacking American spies.”

I frowned. “What? Wasn’t this going on since before the war?”

“America has been sending spies to Domina since before the Fall of Eden,” Tora said. “They normally get eaten up and spat out, but they’ve been getting smarter. And like you said, there was the war. We’ve suddenly become much higher priority, and a number of enemy soldiers survived by hiding out in the city.”

I sat back. “And now the fey are cleaning house,” I said.

“Lady Mab claims that the gargant has slipped the leash,” Tora said. “She refuses to give any more information beyond that. Whether it’s true or not, this gargant is dangerous, and needs to be neutralized before it hurts anyone else.”

“I’m surprised you’re so protective of American spies.”

Gosling sighed. “Honored Noble, how do you think a gargant assassinates people?”

I frowned. “I would assume in a similar manner to my own culture. Swiftly, violently. Why?”

“This isn’t some steel-plated gargant that has learned how to slip through defenses and attack from stealth,”Gosling said. “It’s a big one. There’s some name for it, one second…” He flipped out his pad to check his notes.

“Category three,” Tora said. “The same size as a brick-plated gargant.”

I blinked, then felt a mounting horror in my heart. “Its not just killing the spies. It’s killing everyone who happens to be around them at the time.”

Gosling nodded. “And it’s been getting more violent.” He shook his head. “There are some… oddities. Conflicting reports about the way it kills. Regardless, we need to find this creature as soon as possible.”

“Which is why we are thankful you agreed to help,” Tora said. “We’ll see you tonight.”

“No,” I said. I grabbed my daygoggles off a hook next to the door. “We’ll go now. If my—if this gargant really is the threat you think it is, there’s no reason to delay.”

They both relaxed visibly. They hadn’t wanted to push me, but there did want to rush.

“Thank you, Honored Noble,” Tora said.

Gosling took out his phone. “I’ll call ahead, let them know to be ready for us.”

I forced myself to smile. “Hopefully we can sort this out without too much more trouble.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 312)

I’m certain I put the gargant on the back burner for far too long. But this is still the best time to polish off this old story line, along with a couple of others.

Scene 310 – Insopor

INSOPOR

CHRIS

I yawned as I walked into the waiting room. It was almost midnight. Weren’t they done yet?

The meeting room was filled with people. For a certain definition of ‘people,’ anyway. There were demons like Malcanthet and Lily, but also men with black eyes, people with so much fur or scales I couldn’t tell their gender, people with white skin who didn’t seem to have gender, and people so tall their heads scraped the ceiling.

There were a few who looked normal, though. Adam was sitting at a table with two of them.

“What’s going on?” I asked as I walked up.

“They sent the guards away as a sign of good faith,” he said. He had his eyes closed, and looked like he was trying to nap while sitting up. “Last I checked, they were ironing out trade details.”

“These things always take forever,” one of the men said. He had golden hair and tanned skin, an odd combination.

I nodded. “Still, I would have thought they could take breaks.”

The man shook his head. “That’s why it’s taking so long. Everyone’s worried that if they take a break, the war will restart when they’re not looking. Whether they realize it or not, they’re trying to finish this whole thing in one session.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I’m Ferenil, by the way,” he said. He held out his hand to shake. “Ferenil of the Never-Known Thieves.”

I frowned, but shook his hand anyway. “Chris. Uh, Clemens.”

“I’m Domothon,” the other man said. He had the same shimmering golden hair as Ferenil, but pale skin. “Also of the Never-Known Thieves.”

“…right.” I looked around to try and hide my confusion and apprehension. “Lots of bored muscle here. Is that going to be a problem?”

Domothon snorted. “Of course not.”

Ferenil glared at him. “What my friend here is trying to say is that no one will defy their warlords like that. They have all been ordered not to start the war, and they will obey.” He chuckled to himself. “Especially not with Lily watching.”

“There will be spies, though,” Domothon said. “No one is going to miss this opportunity.”

Adam cracked an eye open. “You said you know most of the people here. You said they’re career bodyguards and some monster slayers. Not spies.”

Domothon smirked. “Of course. Hide a needle in a haystack. But one or two people in each entourage are going to be spies, and everyone is going to have orders to keep an eye out.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned. “Except us, of course.”

To my surprise, Adam actually nodded at that. “Spying isn’t Pam’s style.”

“Eccretia,” Ferenil said.

“Right, sorry, Eccretia.” Adam frowned and shook his head. “Usually I’m good about that.”

Ferenil shrugged. “It happens.”

I looked around, then leaned down to the table. “So who are the spies, do you think?”

“Maeve’s is obvious,” Adam said. Both his eyes were open now, and he nodded at one corner of the room. Three women were standing there, not interacting with any of the other entourages. One woman was almost as big as the giants, another was average size but had pink hair, and the third was small and lithe. She had her back slightly bent, like she was used to walking around in a crouch. Her eyes danced around the room.

“Hm, yes,” I said. “The little girl couldn’t look more like a spy if she tried.”

Adam snorted. “She’s not a spy, she’s an assassin. My money is on the big one being the spy.”

Domothon and Ferenil nodded. “Yes,” Ferenil said. “I can see that.”

“I can’t,” I said. “I could see the pink one being the spy, but the big one is too… well, big. She’ll be spotted wherever she goes.”

“People underestimate the intelligence of giants,” someone said from behind us. I turned to see one of the giants from before standing near our table. He was almost eight feet tall, with a neatly trimmed red beard. “Using Pauline as the spy might be a little obvious, but it is hard for people to put aside their prejudices.”

Adam nodded. “Thrym and Surtr have gotten quite a lot of mileage out of that fact. I imagine Skrag has an even larger advantage.”

The giant sighed. “Honestly, I don’t even know. One minute he is the perfect gentleman Titan, the next he’s a frothing berserker. It must be an act, but if so it’s a very good one.” He shook his head. “Apologies. I complain about his manners, and then forget my own. I am Henry. I am a Muspel, as I am sure you already guessed.” He smiled. “You two are Never-Known Thieves, correct?”

Ferenil nodded. “I am Ferenil, and this is Domothon.”

“And where are the representatives from the Forgotten Names and the Firstborn, Honored Paladin?”

Domothon grinned. “Out spying.”

Ferenil kicked him under the table, but Domothon just laughed it off. Henry smiled as well.

“I’m Chris Clemens,” I said. I didn’t hold out my hand to shake. His hands were as big as my head, and I was worried he’d crush me in a handshake. “This is Adam Anders.”

Adam nodded politely. “Sorry I forgot to introduce myself.”

“No need,” Henry said. “We all know who you are, Honored Paragon.”

I frowned. There was that word again, paragon. People said it like a title.

Henry turned to me. “But I have not met you before. Are you a close friend of the Honored Mother?”

It took me a second to realize what he was talking about. “No, nothing like that. I’m not from Domina. I’m from here. From New York.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Interesting. Very interesting indeed. May I ask how you came to be here?”

Adam chuckled. “It’s a long story. We wouldn’t do it justice. Lily will tell it to MC soon, and she’ll do a full press release.”

“The short version is that I followed Adam,” I said. “I’m his bodyguard.”

Henry threw back his head and laughed, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.

“Muspel,” one of the black-eyes called. “What’s so funny?”

He grinned and indicated me. “This one is Anders’ bodyguard.”

Everyone in the room laughed at that. Not the deep belly laugh Henry had produced, but still genuine amusement.

I frowned, then turned to Adam. He just smirked.

“Domina City is smaller than you’d think,” he said. “You’d be surprised how easy it is to become famous.”

“Earlier you told me it’s bigger than I could possibly imagine.”

“Yeah, it’s that too.”

I sighed. “Whatever.” I eyed Henry. “Do you know how long that meeting will go? They have to take a break eventually.”

The giant shrugged. “I think everyone in there except Eccretia has the Insomniac gland.”

“And Eccretia has Insomniac soda,” Domothon said. “She can keep going with the rest of them.”

Henry nodded. “Yes, of course. I know the White Cat brought a few cases.”

I didn’t bother asking what an Insomniac gland was. The name was clear enough, and I’d look like an idiot if I brought it up. “Even if that’s true, the Americans don’t have anything like that.”

Henry frowned. “They could… share?”

Domothon laughed. “The White Cat, sharing?”

The doors opened, and everyone turned to see the ambassadors walking out.

Lily was first. She walked with a straight back, pad held professionally at her side. Her tail was low to the ground, and didn’t swish to the sides much. She smiled at everyone she passed, then jerked her head at Adam. He stood, preparing to escort her out.

Behind Lily were the wheelchairs, being pushed by the vampire. Adam had called him Dracul a few hours ago. I was surprised that someone of his level was willing to do menial labor. Maybe the others agreed, because two of the giants ran up and took over. Dracul smiled and said something to them, before stepping out of line and walking over to his men.

Adam grabbed me by the arm before I had a chance to watch the rest of the procession. He nodded goodbye at Domothon, Ferenil, and Henry, and we walked up to Lily. She was standing at the doors leading out of the room, waiting.

“The meeting has been put on hold until ten in the morning,” she said. “Most of the Americans, and some of the Dominites, were almost ready to pass out. Continuing would have been counter-productive.”

I nodded. Made sense.

Lily led us out the doors and took us down a hallway. I glanced behind us, but no one else was coming out. They were probably getting up to speed with their entourages.

“We’ll need somewhere to stay the night,” Lily said. “Is your house still an option?”

Adam thought about it. “Maybe. But the Americans should have offered you a hotel room or something.”

Lily’s shoulders slumped. “I… don’t trust them.” She said it like she was admitting to some horrible crime.

Adam put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close. “It’s all right. Better safe than sorry.”

“What are you worried about?” I asked. “Bugs in the room?”

“I don’t care what they overhear,” Lily said. “I’m worried they might decide it’s easier to get rid of me than talk.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “Really?

She gave me a sad smile. “I am far from invincible, Miss Clemens. Surviving some low-caliber rounds and a gasoline fire hardly makes me immune to assassins.”

“That’s not what I mean,” I said with a smile of my own. A much happier smile. “Nobody uses assassins. Not since the 1970’s, anyway. The international community comes down really hard on that sort of thing.”

Adam frowned. “The 1970’s? Do you know the exact date?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. There is an exact date, though. North Korea tried to assassinate literally every other leader in the world, completely failed, and the international community went crazy. Passed new laws, the whole thing.”

“And everyone was about to attack North Korea,” Adam said, clearly remembering his history classes. “But then the North Korean leader committed suicide.” He frowned. “And he killed his entire cabinet or something, right?”

“Sounds familiar, but I’m not sure.”

“Huh. Convenient.”

I chuckled. “Convenient would be if he had done it decades earlier.”

“Maybe she couldn’t do it then.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” He shook his head. “Anyway. It’s nice that the outside world is all civilized and everything, but I’m still with Lily. Better safe than sorry. Maybe they’ll decide that we don’t count when it comes to assassins because we’re backwater savages. Or whatever.”

“Or they found out about Artemis’ ghosts and want to return the favor,” Lily said. She didn’t sound happy.

Adam sighed. “The ghosts are—”

“Necessary. I know.” She shook her head. “Let’s just get out of here. We can take a cab.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 310)

Korea has been reunified for a few decades now. That means that it has started to pass from the realm of “miraculous recovery of a tortured people” to “class, this test will be worth ten percent of your grade.” Chris was a kid when it happened, so she remembers it pretty vividly, even if she’s fuzzy on the details. Adam wasn’t even born yet.

Scene 299 – Relinquo

RELINQUO

ADAM

January 1st, 2002. A Tuesday, of all days. It felt weird for this to be happening on a Tuesday. It just seemed… random. Which I guess it was. The fact that it was the first of the year was far more important.

I stood in a crowd at the square of South Gate, watching the ambassadors leave. South Gate was also called Demon Gate, which was an important symbol. The demons were the most open-minded culture, or so Lily had told me.

There were ten ambassadors, but they each had at least a handful of bodyguards. That made the procession a more confusing than it needed to be. Thankfully, Lily was standing right next to me the whole time.

“That’s Sargeras,” she said, pointing at an older demon in a crisp military uniform. He was tall and muscular with red skin, but just normally muscular. He didn’t look like a warlord. Most warlords looked like they bench-pressed cars in their spare time. “He’s one of the founders of the demon culture.”

I nodded. I wasn’t completely ignorant. “He’s the leader of the hellions, right?”

“The first one, at least, and he leads the largest Legion. But calling him the leader of the entire subculture is a stretch.”

Sargeras continued marching, looking straight ahead. His face was impassive and unreadable, and his six bodyguards looked about the same. One of them had a flagpole with two flags. I recognized the demon flag on top, but underneath it was another one. That was probably the hellion flag, or even Sargeras’ personal one.

“That’s the Dragon, right?” I said, pointing to the next group in line. The vampire leader was easy to pick out—he was the only one not wearing daygoggles. He smiled and waved at the crowd, those perfect eyes of his twinkling. His entourage remained stone-faced, like they were just putting up with his antics. He had a flag-bearer too, but his only had one flag. That must have been a statement; the Dragon didn’t need his own flag. The vampire one was more than enough.

Lily nodded. “Dracul is the one who started all this, you know.”

I frowned. “I thought it was Butler and President Martinez.”

“Not that. I mean he’s the first one who decided to come himself, rather than send a representative. Everyone else decided to follow suit. That’s why they each sent a major warlord instead of just a diplomat.” She smiled. “He often does things like that.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You like him? I thought a lot of people had problems with him.”

She shrugged. “I like everyone. I see the best in people.”

Fair enough. That was why we were dating.

“Here come the angels,” Lily said. “That’s Pistis Sophia up front.”

The woman was… well, she wasn’t quite a woman any more. She was naked, but she had no sex organs at all. Even her breasts werelittle more than bumps. Her skin was a light green and glowed just a tiny bit. It was hard to see under the morning sun. She smiled and waved at the crowd, but her six angels didn’t. They wore large, concealing brown robes, probably to hide their dayskin from American eyes.

I struggled to remember. “She’s in charge of… the spies, I know that, but which Heaven…”

“Solania,” Lily said. “The Crystal Heaven.”

“Ah, yes.” The second flag on her pole was crystalline. “I should have guessed. Should the angels be sending spies to these things?”

She smiled at me. “They’re all spies, dear.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean one so obvious.”

“Ah.” She shrugged. “She has her uses. The Hebdomad knows what they’re doing.”

I sighed, and nodded to the next in line. “Who’s the fel?”

He was a full anthro, with a squashed face and white fur. I was pretty sure he was wearing clothing, but it was hard to tell. The fur was light and fluffy, and obscured most of his body. He gave a few half-hearted waves to the crowd, but otherwise didn’t seem to be paying much attention.

“That’s the White Cat.”

“Never heard of him.”

Lily chuckled. “Oh, you are such a dear. That’s the founder of the fels. One of the three founders of the kemos, in fact.” Her smile faded. “He’s the last one alive.”

I watched him walk by. He didn’t seem all that impressive.

His entourage was far more interesting. There were two fels, two lupes, and two ursas. There was one flag-bearer for each, with a different flag underneath the kemo one. I didn’t recognize the flags, but I was willing to bet that they were the fel, lupe, and ursa flags.

Next were the giants. Most of the subcultures were represented in their entourage. I recognized the trolls, Nifs, and Muspels, but they were easy. There were a few hairy guys who I assumed were either sasquatches or yetis. I didn’t recognize the ambassador himself, though.

“Who’s that?” I asked. “That’s not Thor, right?”

Lily chuckled, but she seemed a bit sad. “No. That’s Skrag the Slaughterer.”

I stared at her.

She shrugged. “He was the only option. The ogres are mostly neutral among the giants.”

I turned back to the procession. I should have known Skrag was an ogre. He was shirtless, with a big bouncy sumo belly. His muscular arms were adorned with tribal tattoos. Broad, sweeping designs that probably meant something important. Not that I knew what. He had a short beard and was bald. This contrasted with the other ogres in his entourage, who wore their hair wild.

Behind the giants was another group. Their leader was a beautiful young woman in a stunning black gown dusted with diamonds. Her black hair was cropped short, like a boy’s, and her eyes glittered like stars. She smiled at everyone as she passed, but no one smiled back. I didn’t need Lily to tell me who this was.

Maeve, the Princess of Wind and Frost. Maiden of the Unseelie Court.

One of the bigger girls behind her was carrying a flag. It was one I hadn’t seen before. It seemed to be a standard mythological fairy, with cute wings and long hair. It looked absolutely nothing like Maeve or any of the other fey I had seen. I wondered if that was the joke.

“I’m surprised one of the actual fey is going,” I said. “Are they sure the homunculus will be able to operate so far from the city?”

Lily nodded. “That one has an upgraded radio package. She could pilot it on Luna with only a tiny delay.”

“Do you recognize anyone in her entourage?”

She shook her head. “No. But they might have been altered too much to tell for sure. Maeve is loaded for combat, though. The big one is a tank, the little one is stealth. With those two, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

“What about the medium-sized one?”

“Either a support gunner or something specialized. Poison, maybe. Now shush, the changelings are coming.”

They were. I was surprised they were right behind the fey, but I guess whoever decided the order of the procession had a reason for it. I recognized Eccretia in the front, followed by Domothon and Ferenil. There were two other changelings I didn’t recognize. They were probably representatives of the Black Hats and the Gray Hats. They were all glaring at the fey in front of them, but Maeve didn’t even seem to notice. The changelings didn’t have a flag, which made them seem a bit awkward among the other proud cultures.

Behind them came something unexpected: Two women, twins. They appeared to be completely baseline, but I wasn’t fooled. They both worked together to hold up a a flagpole with two flags. The top was a twisting fish, and underneath it a shark.

“Those the Dagonites?” I asked.

Lily nodded. “Hevatica and Dilithase. They’re both sirens, which is only to be expected. The Naiads almost managed to get one of their own chosen as the ambassador, but fought with the Nereids and the Oceanids. The twins swooped in and took the place themselves.”

“Why don’t they have an entourage?”

“They do. Made up of representatives from both the Atlanteans and the Dagonites. But the twins are the only ones with a power that lets them stand for long enough to be part of this procession.”

I glanced at her. “What are they going to do for the actual discussions? Wheel in a fish tank?”

She smiled. “Maybe. The merfolk don’t need much from America. They just need to make sure they don’t get screwed over when they’re not looking.”

“Well, I—” Something caught my attention. “Who is that?

The last group in the procession consisted of five people. They strode with their heads held high, but I didn’t recognize their culture. They had thick scales, more like a crocodile than a lizard, and some of them had long and narrow snouts. Each of the five had different color scales: Red, green, white, blue, and the woman in front was silver. Her eyes were strong, and she smiled an anthro smile at everyone she passed.

I didn’t recognize the flag, either. It looked like ten triangles arranged in a circle around a sphere. It was more geometric than some of the other ones.

“That is Tamara, the Mercy,” Lily said. “Wyrm of the Compassionate Healers. They’re one of the ten dragon subcultures.”

Oh, right, dragons. I had forgotten they were a thing now. Laura had tried to explain to me the politics of Io’s death, but I hadn’t been able to pay attention. Tamara appeared to have wings on her back, but they were folded up and were hard to spot.

“I’m surprised they’re allowed to send an ambassador.”

“They’re an official culture. They registered with Necessarius and everything.” She smirked. “Besides, can you imagine the riots if the fey were allowed to go and the dragons weren’t?”

I chuckled. Yeah, even someone as politics-blind as me could see how that would be a bad idea.

Lily watched for a few moments longer, then pulled me away, away from the procession.

I frowned. “What is it? Isn’t the ‘sarian delegation coming up next?”

“Yes, but you need to leave soon.”

I sighed as she pulled me through the crowd, down a few side streets. I had been trying not to think about it. “I didn’t—maybe I made a mistake. Maybe this isn’t the best time for me to leave the city.”

“You need a vacation,” Lily said. “Besides, this is the perfect time. With the ambassadors coming in, no one is going to pay attention to you.”

That would be nice. I was beginning to miss my anonymity. Even now, some of the people we passed whispered and pointed me out. Well, some of them pointed to Lily, but most noticed me first. I had tried not to make a big deal of it, but I had saved the city pretty much by myself. That was the kind of thing people remembered.

“Do I have to take a plane?” I asked. We were out of the crowd now. Lily hailed a cab. “Couldn’t I just… I don’t know… hide out on the ambassador boat?”

She rolled her eyes.

“Okay, fine, that wouldn’t work.” For like a million reasons, starting with the fact that the ambassadors wouldn’t let me. “But can’t I just take a different boat?”

“All the ‘sarian ships are either escorting the ambassadors or remaining behind to guard the city, just in case. There aren’t any others available.”

The cab pulled up, and we piled inside. “What about the prisoner transfer boats? I came in on one of those. Not as a prisoner, but you know what I mean.”

“The airport, please,” Lily said to the driver. He nodded and drove off. She turned to me. “Those boats are controlled by New York, not Domina. Calling for one would attract a lot of attention. Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it?”

I sighed and sat back in my seat.

Lily cocked her head at me. “Are you that worried about your parents?”

I rolled my eyes. “No. They’re annoying, but it’ll be fine.”

“They won’t force you to stay home or anything?”

“No, nothing like that. They’ll tell me to be careful about a million times, but that’s all. They’re big on the whole trusting me to make my own decisions thing.” I smiled. “Besides, what are they gonna do? Cut me off? I make more money monster hunting already.” I thought about it. “I should tell them to stop sending me money. It’s not like I’m going to class any more.”

I never used to think about that sort of thing before I met Lily. If someone offers you money, you take it. Well, you check that it’s not a trap first, but you don’t worry about morality. Growing a conscience was annoying.

“Then what’s the problem?”

I paused, embarrassed. “I’ve… never been on a plane before.”

Lily blinked, then laughed. “You’re scared! That’s so cute!”

I scowled. “It is not.”

“Yes it is! You fight monsters on a daily basis, but one little plane ride has you looking for escape routes! That is just adorable.” She pinched my cheek and giggled. “Oh, I wish I had more time to make fun of you for this.”

I pushed her off. It took two tries. The first time, she accidentally used her strength to resist me. I couldn’t even move her an inch. “I’m getting on the plane, don’t you worry about that. I almost came to the city in the first place on a plane! I just…” I shrugged helplessly. “I just wish that there was another way.”

She just sat there, smirking.

I sighed. “What are you going to be doing while I’m gone? More work with Clarke?”

“No, we’re mostly done with that. I will be doing a few things for Necessarius, but nothing directly related to Clarke’s experiments or the toy maker. It’s a bit complex, not something to discuss in the back of a cab.”

I nodded. “Fair enough.” The cabbie didn’t seem to be paying attention to us, but that didn’t mean anything.

“We’ll talk more next time I see you,” Lily said. “But for now, let’s just enjoy the drive.”

She leaned up against me. I put my arm around her, and we spent the rest of the drive to the airport like that.

Behind the scenes (scene 299)

Lily/Adam scenes are a bit too cute for me to write regularly. But they also work great since Lily has so much knowledge of the city, while Adam is still lagging behind everyone else on that front.

Scene 298 – Amor et Sanguine

AMOR ET SANGUINE

FIERNA

“Can we hurry this up?” the Dragon asked. “I have to be in New York City tomorrow morning.” He adjusted the cuff links on his black suit. “It would be very embarrassing if I was late.”

Bel growled. “The only reason it took so long is because you were busy playing war games. We should have had this meeting weeks ago.”

Dracul smiled at him, his godeyes sparkling. “I was defending our fair city, Honored Noble. What exactly were you doing when warships arrived on our shores?”

Before they could get into another argument, Ishtar slowly took her seat, languishing across the velvet couch like a great cat. Her sensual dress made her every motion the center of attention. “You are the one who called us here, dearest Fierna. I think it is only appropriate that you be the one to get us started.”

‘Here’ was Jealous Heart, Ishtar’s aptly named domain. It was patterned after Shendilavri’s velvet halls, which always made me a little uncomfortable. But it was warm and quiet, which made it better than Phlegethos right now. Sure, I had plenty of cold-weather buffs, but it was the middle of winter and half the damn domain was styled after a medieval castle. Concrete walls made the whole place feel like an icebox.

I nodded to her. “Thank you, Honored Ishtar. I’m not sure how much Gazra told you—”

“Nothing interesting.” She waved her hand. “Something about it being important to something or something.”

“An apt summary,” Bel said. “I have a better understanding.” He gave me a weary look. “You want to free the sclavi. Truly free them, not just cut them off from the chems and leave them to die in the back alleys of Acheron.”

“Yes, which is why—”

“It’s a nice idea,” he said. “But I’m not sure it will work. Phlegethos just isn’t set up for that sort of thing. How many members do you have right now? Real members.”

“A few hundred. But—”

Bel sighed. “Look, I know you think you can handle it. But having that many people under your command is more than just feeding them all. The freed slaves are going to want voices in the culture. They’ll be happy with you at first, but that will go downhill quickly. Do you even have a basic republic framework set up?”

I frowned. “No, but neither do you!”

“The Avernans number a little over a thousand,” he said. “Enlightened dictatorship works pretty well at that level.  Especially since my drakes can leave if they don’t like what I’m doing. Yours won’t have that option.”

“Yes, they will,” I said. “That’s the entire point.”

He gave me a pitying look. “You know it’s not that simple. Yes, they’ll be free to leave, but where else will they go? Who will take in thousands of just-clean chem-heads? Even Butler would have trouble with an influx like that. You will be their only option, so you need to make sure it’s a good option.”

I squared my jaw. “Then what do you suggest, hm? That I turn Phlegethos into an elected oligarchy? Oh wait, that’s what the pines did, and they all died. Or maybe an anarchy, like the Satanists! Because they are wonderful role models!”

“Fierna,” Bel said chided. “You’re being unreasonable.”

I nearly pulled out my hair and threw it in his face.

“Actually, I’m with her on this one,” Dracul said. He was leaning forward, that small knowing smile on his lips. “Worrying about the government of a sick culture is putting the cart before the horse. Keep it a dictatorship right now.” He winked at me. “Though maybe cut down on the executions.”

I frowned at Bel. “Is that what this is about? You don’t like that I’m executing traitors?”

“He’s a scientist, love,” Ishtar said without opening her eyes. “Executions are a waste of test subjects.”

Bel glared at her, but decided she wasn’t worth the effort. He turned back to me. “Sweetie, I know you’re doing your best. And you’re right, a lot of those people deserved worse than what you gave them.  Bleeding night, maybe all of them did. I’m just worried that you might let the power go to your head. There need to be checks and balances.”

“I already have a slave army that only I control,” I said. “Tell me uncle, how exactly is freeing them going to give me power that is more dangerous than that?”

“It’s not—I’m not—” He sighed. “I just want you to be mindful of the mistakes your father made. Please, that’s all I ask.”

“I will,” I said, and meant it. “I left because of what he did.”

Bel nodded. “Good. Excellent.”

I scratched at the spot where my fixer used to be. “Now, on to actually curing the sclavi—”

“First, we need to discuss retribution,” Bel said.

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

“What exactly are you talking about?”

“Mom already forgave her for the whole Whorestown thing,” Ishtar said. She was popping grapes into her mouth one by one. Where did she get grapes?

“I thought even you forgave her,” the Dragon said. He was looking at Bel with the gaze of a predator. “Lots of yelling, made you feel better, all that?”

“I remember the yelling,” I muttered petulantly. I couldn’t help it. Bel always made me feel like a child.

Bel looked annoyed, but nodded. “True. Your involvement in Shendilavri has been… resolved. The question is everything after. Everything the culture has done in your name since.” He pulled out a pad. “As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s quite an exhaustive list.”

I finally sat down and put my head in my hands. “Noapte, please tell me those idiots didn’t.”

Bel hesitated. “Well… yes. They didn’t. That is, they didn’t pay retribution.”

“Yes,” said, deadpan. “I was hoping they didn’t do that.”

Bel frowned. “So you were hoping they didn’t didn’t pay retribution?”

“Yes yes, I worded it poorly,” I snapped. “Get on with it. How much do I owe?”

He looked over the list. “This is an estimation, you understand—”

“Mine isn’t,” Dracul said. He pulled out his own pad and threw it at me with perfect accuracy. I caught it easily. “First page. My boys have been tracking what those idiots have been doing since your mom left.”

I scrolled through the list. “This… isn’t as bad as I thought.”

Dracul shrugged. “A lot of them got voided when people decided violence was better retribution.  After all, it’s not like your people ever actually paid. Then the judges started awarding violence for all retributions against Belians.  Your warlords started paying on time more after that. Your biggest debts are from the early days. Things people have forgotten about.”

“If they’ve forgotten, then you’re all set,” Ishtar said. I glanced up. Now she had a glass of white wine—rare, for a vampire. We drank red exclusively, due to the association with blood. “Just ignore them and you’re good to go.”

“They’ve been forgotten, not forgiven,” I said. “As the culture begins to rise again, debtors will find themselves suffering a sudden outbreak of memory.” I paged through the list again. “Very specific memories with very long numbers attached.”

“Exactly. So you need money.” Dracul smiled. “You have a big giant labor force ready and willing to make you piles of cash. Now you have a moral question: Do you want to put them to work now and keep all the profits?  Or do you want to cure them first, which is the right thing to do but leaves them with the lion’s share?”

Bel shook his head. “Don’t bother trying to appeal to her better side, Drake. She inherited her mother’s pragmatism. You’re not going to convince her to—”

“Cure them,” I said.

Bel frowned. “It’s a trick.”

“It’s basic business,” I said. “Free men and women are more productive than slaves. Especially when the slaves are literally mindless. There’s not really that much work in this city for a bunch of drones.”

“Asmodeus still has that market cornered,” Ishtar said. She was sitting upside down now, for some reason. I had given up on trying to understand her years ago. She was either genuinely insane or had so much fun pretending that it made no difference.

“That settles it,” Dracul said with a clap and a massive smile. “Bel, I’m sure with Naome’s notes, you can figure something out rather quickly, correct?” He winked at me. “I’m sure he’s been working on it since you came back.”

Bel muttered something under his breath about how he had actually been working on it for years.  He just hadn’t had much progress until now.

“Excellent!” the Dragon said. He stood up, getting ready to leave. “If that’s all, I do need to prepare for tomorrow—”

“No,” Bel said, standing up as well. “There is still the issue of payment.”

I scowled. “For years, you’ve been working to free the sclavi on your own dime, but now it’s about money?”

“Yes. Especially since we still haven’t figured out how you’ll handle the sudden influx of free vampires.”

I sighed. “Okay, so it’s not your money you’re worried about.”

“Not just my money,” he said. “But I’ll work on this one at cost. I’ll send you an invoice later, it shouldn’t be more than ten thousand dollars or so.”

I nodded. Even though my culture was destitute, ten thousand dollars was chump change. If I decided to crack open my father’s quarters and sell some of his crap, it wouldn’t even be a drop in the bucket. The problem was that selling things would attract attention from creditors. I wanted to hold off on that for as long as possible.

“The bigger expense will be the sclavi themselves,” Bel continued. “Have you given any thought to how you are going to make it up to them?”

“Freeing them and giving them appropriate medical treatment will help clear away some of the debt,” I said. “Going by Butler’s retribution laws, that is. I’ll need to check the actual numbers, but in the end it shouldn’t be much more than a couple thousand a head.”

Dracul chuckled. “That’s what, ten million or so total?”

“A little less,” I muttered.

“No way you have that much money lying around.”

“Well, I’m not going to take any more loans. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Bel shook his head. “Your father’s stupidity and drugs got you into this. Take the loan.”

“Speaking of which, how is the drug trade?” Ishtar asked. At least she was sitting right side up now. “You’re following Butler’s rules and all that, but what are your profits looking like?”

I sighed. “A quarter percent profit.”

Ishtar laughed out loud. “How have you managed that? The hags have backed down since the Rampage, so you shouldn’t have any competition.”

I rolled my eyes. “Had to restructure the chem vats. You should have seen them. They weren’t just below code, they were barely working at all. I would trust chems cooked in a bathtub more than those.”

“I just bought from you the other day!”

I nodded. “We got new vats. Upgraded the whole system from top to bottom. We’re back on top, it’s just going to take us a few months to start paying off what we spent.”

“But you have enough money to pay me?” Bel asked.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “Barely. Don’t worry about my money situation. I have a pretty good idea what I’m doing.”

“Managing the finances of a couple ‘sarians is different from managing an entire culture. There are food expenses, basic upkeep, electricity—”

“Yes, thank you,” I said through clenched teeth. “I know. As I said, I have it handled. I didn’t kill all of my advisers, you know.”

“You need someone smarter than your boyfriend, Fi.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten. This man… it was almost like he was trying to get on my bad side.

“I will consider taking a loan,” I said. “I’ll talk to Glasya about it. She’ll give me a good deal.”

“You sure you should trust her?” Ishtar asked.

“Ishtar, get off the ceiling.”

“It’s my domain, I can do what I want!”

I sighed, but didn’t press it. “Yes, I trust Glasya. To a point. She doesn’t break deals, you know that. And yes,” I said, pointing at Bel before he had a chance to speak. “I will bring a lawyer with me. There are a lot of them in Phlegethos. They were some of the only ones who didn’t run away.”

The Dragon chuckled. “There’s a joke in there.”

“Please don’t make it.”

“So is that it?” Ishtar asked. “Have we settled everything? Your culture seems to be doing fine, so I don’t think we need to interfere quite yet.”

“There is something,” Bel said. “The sclavi still need to be dealt with.”

I looked away. I had been hoping he had forgotten.

“I’ll cure them,” I said. I had been thinking about it during the conversation. “Remove their chem glands, flush their systems, and give them enough treatment to make them clean. The whole process should take two weeks minimum. I’ll stretch it to a month to be on the safe side. Most of these people aren’t healthy.”

Bel nodded. “A wise move. And if Phlegethos falls due to a lack of manpower—”

However, I have a condition.”

The Dragon smirked. “I think I know where this is going.”

“I don’t,” Bel said. “Fi, I’m sure you believe you can save both the sclavi and the culture, but I think you need to accept that—”

“I need your help to cure the hags.”

Bel stopped speaking. He blinked like an owl. “What?”

“Baba Yaga has… had a change of heart since the Rampage,” I said. I had spoken to Obould and Veronica a bit. “She has little wish to keep her slaves. In fact, she wouldn’t be unduly bothered if she was knocked from her throne entirely. She has never enjoyed being a warlord. She was forced into the role because a bunch of drug-addled morons demanded it.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Bel asked. “I am honestly impressed that you are willing to help other chem-heads.  I just don’t understand how this will help you save your culture.”

“Because, dear uncle, the hags will know who saved them,” I said. “As will the sclavi. And I will give each and every one of them the option to join me at Phlegethos. Where they will be fed, sheltered, and given jobs.”

“And drugs?” Ishtar asked.

“Eventually,” I said. “But to start, I’ll just give them a place.”

Bel leaned back. “I don’t know, Fi. I don’t think it will be enough to keep the culture alive.”

I resisted the urge to grind my teeth. “It will last for long enough. As the culture regains legitimacy, more people will join us normally.”

“All right, sounds easy enough to me,” the Dragon said. “I’ll tell my boys to help you while I’m gone. I just have one question. What will happen to the rest? The chem-heads who have been cured, but don’t want to join you?”

“I will direct them to Necessarius,” I said. “Butler always needs more men, for anything and everything.”

“And if they don’t want that?”

“Then they’ll have to find jobs elsewhere. I will do my best, but there’s only so much I can do.”

The Dragon nodded.

Ishtar flipped down from the ceiling. “I’m game.”

Bel slowly stroked his chin. “…very well. My men can make tranquilizer darts that will even work on a life-long sclav or hag.” He gave me a level look. “Let’s see what you can do, dear Fierna.”

Behind the scenes (scene 298)

I’ve been pushing back the sclavi problem for a hundred chapters. But I think now that the war is over, it can finally come to a close.

Scene 279 – Noctu Insidias

NOCTU INSIDIAS

ILEANA

My name is Ileana. I am an ambassador of the Nosferatu vampires, specifically the Nictuku clan. After Cinder and Halifax were cast out, I became a full-time employee of Necessarius, helping them smooth over some of the more difficult Nosferatu bloodlines—which is to say, all of them.

The point was, the last place I should be was a battlefield.

I dove behind a car as bullets hit the pavement where I had been standing. The American soldiers still had those light amplification goggles on, which meant they could actually see me. We were on one of the side streets near East Gate, pretty far from the Dragon’s ambush spots. There were no angels to drop a daybreak and force the soldiers to take the goggles off. And of course this was vampire territory, so there wasn’t a flashlight within twenty blocks.

The soldiers fired again, bullets pinging off the car. It wouldn’t hold up against them for long. Weren’t Americans supposed to be soft and hesitant? They shouldn’t be willing to shoot at an unarmed observer!

Of course, the soft and the hesitant generally didn’t join the army, much less the infantry. And then the Dragon had decided to use ambush and terror tactics to scare them, make them sloppy. Well, that seemed to be working, it was just gonna get me killed in the process.

I had claws and poison fangs, but that wasn’t anywhere near enough for me to win a fight with five armed men. I didn’t even have any armor, let alone the sort of bulletproof black carapace that Halifax had been so fond of.

I did have one thing, though.

I took a deep breath and tugged at my reservoir, the fuel source for my power. I wasn’t like some people, the ones who never used their powers for one reason or another. Some didn’t want anything given to them by the Composer, some were former screamers who got powers that didn’t fit them, and some were just lazy.

I trained with my power. I knew how to use it. It was too valuable not to practice with it daily. The source was irrelevant.

No, the problem was that I wasn’t used to having to use my power while I was being shot at.

Every bullet that got too close affected my concentration, making it harder to draw out my power. None hit, none even got close. But every time something pinged off that car, I couldn’t help but think that sooner or later, the bullets would punch through and hit me…

Unless I did this.

I took a deep breath, and projected an illusion.

Suddenly, there was a copy of me crouching on the sidewalk behind the car with me. She looked exactly like me, from the dirt on her face to the black eyes to the singed hair. She should; self-projection was the most common illusion I used. Half the time these days I didn’t even talk to people face to face, I just projected an illusion of myself around the corner and let them talk to that. It had already saved my life twice.

I sent her running off in one direction, keeping her low as those she was trying to stay out of sight. The truth, of course, was the opposite. The soldiers needed to see her, because otherwise they might see me.

The shooting paused briefly, then redirected. Gunfire ricocheted off mailboxes and cars farther up the street.

“C’mon!” I heard one soldier yell, and then the sound of running boots.

I stayed still for a few moments, waiting to see if anyone was still there. When I didn’t hear anything, I crept out of my hiding place. I was safe.

Which, unfortunately, was a problem.

If I was safe, someone else wasn’t. My phone had broken in the scuffle. By the time I found someone and sent nightstalkers to deal with these soldiers, they would be long gone. They could do some real damage to our ambushes if they came at us from the right angle. Bashing around backstage, my friend had called it.

With no other choice, I crept forward in the direction the soldiers had gone. I was hoping I would find a radio or a phone or something. My only option was to hope I could somehow use my illusions to trick the soldiers into shooting each other. They might be high-strung, but I had a feeling it would be harder than it sounded.

At least they weren’t making any attempt to be stealthy. I heard them when I was still a street away. Their voices echoed off the empty streets and tall buildings as if they were in a deep cave.

I shivered. Empty streets in Domina City. Even during the Composer’s reign, it hadn’t been this bad. Yes yes, tactics and strategy rather than fear and bloodshed, but still, it brought to mind the worst moments of those days. They weren’t gone long enough that I could just ignore the similarities.

As I got closer, I actually managed to hear what the men were saying.

“Where’d she go?”

“I dunno, Sarge. You think she doubled back?”

“Don’t see how. She probably just slipped into a house or shop or whatever these places are.” I heard someone spit. “Keep your eyes peeled. She’s definitely a spy.”

“She’s just a kid, Sarge.”

“She had claws and fangs, Corporal. She looked like a damned monster. Why would she look like that, if she wasn’t planning to use it?”

Because it was fashionable, you uncultured brute.

A new voice, younger and female, piped up. “Sarge, we’re getting a bit off the beaten path here. You think we should head back?”

I froze. If they headed back, they’d find me. Should I project another illusion?

“Let me see that map,” the sergeant said. There was a pause. “We’re not too far from the gate. Let’s set up a forward outpost here. Corporal, recon that shop, it will do for a start. We’re going to hunker down, shoot anything that comes close.”

“Yessir,” the Corporal said. “You two, with me.”

My mind raced. What should I do now? I couldn’t tell if this was better or worse than them continuing on. If they kept going, they might blunder into something important. It would be hard to dig them out of the shop, but it was better than letting them walk a few more streets and find the orphanages, right?

I was close enough to see them now. There were six of them. Three were heading towards a blood shop. The other three had their backs to the shop, watching the streets. Their guns were lowered, but not forgotten. If someone attacked, they’d have them up in less than a heartbeat.

The shop was abandoned, or at least the first floor was. The streets were deserted, but a lot of people lived out here, above their shops or factories or storehouses. If the soldiers decided to sweep the entire building, they could find innocent bystanders on the upper levels. Well, for a given definition of innocent, anyway. The point was, they needed to be stopped before this could escalate any further.

Evidently, someone agreed.

There was a scream from inside the shop. All three men still out on the street turned, guns raised and pointed in that direction. They spread out wide, trying to cover all exits from the shop at once. The problem was that it was a corner, so they’d have to expose themselves to do so.

“Corporal?” the Sergeant called, advancing slowly. “Report!”

His only response was another scream.

He never saw the vampire sneaking up behind him, a wicked long knife held in his hand.

The blade was darkened with ash, a common practice for the Mals. He stepped up right behind the Sergeant and clapped a hand over his mouth while slitting his throat in the same motion. He caught the body, lowering it slowly to the ground, and kept an eye on the other two soldiers. They hadn’t noticed yet, but he had seconds left, if that.

I wanted to use my illusions to help, but the only sound I could project was my own voice. I doubted I could pass for the Sergeant. Maybe if I—

But it was already too late. One of the other soldiers glanced in the direction of the Sergeant and saw the Mal.

“Contact!” the American yelled, opening fire. His companion joined suit a heartbeat later, and I almost jumped at the sudden staccato of gunfire. I was not built for this.

The Mal yelped and tried to run, but the bullets ripping through his leg and torso slowed him down too much. I concentrated and created an illusion of him, which I sent running into the blood shop. The soldiers followed it, but I’d be surprised if it kept them occupied for more than ten seconds.

I rushed over to the Mal’s side. I threw his arm over my shoulder, ignoring the fact that my heart was in my throat.

To his credit, the Mal didn’t waste time or breath trying to figure out who I was. He just struggled to his feet, hissing, and started limping away from the battle. I had to half-carry him most of the way.

“Hey!” one of the soldiers cried. “They’re over here!” Bullets hit the car next to us.

“Any ideas?” I asked.

The Mal groaned. “No. What’s your power—”

The car next to us burst into flame, and we both threw ourselves to the ground instinctively. But despite what television would have you believe, cars don’t explode at the drop of a hat. This one had probably caught from a one in a million shot, a bullet hitting just the right part of the generator. It wouldn’t get any worse than it was right now.

But a burning car is still pretty bad, especially in vampire territory. The Mal and I both cursed and stumbled away, blinded as easily as a baseline staring at the sun. My eyes were watering and my vision completely white—I couldn’t see two steps in front of me.

But at least we had experience getting blinded. I heard more cursing behind us, the sound of the Americans ripping off their light amplification goggles. They’d recover quickly. We only had seconds.

The Mal dragged us up a few steps, which probably meant into an abandoned storefront. I tripped and stumbled over something on the ground, but he threw me behind a counter instead of just letting me fall on the floor.

I took a deep breath, blinking to allow my eyes to adjust. There was still the fire outside the window, but it was far enough away. There were enough walls between us and it that it was just radiant rather than blinding.

I glanced around the shop. It was a magazine library, with pads and computers chained to desks so that people could read the latest editions of this, that, or the other thing. There were more rooms upstairs, but I didn’t want to lead the soldiers up there in case there were people hiding up there.

“What’s your power?” the Mal, sitting next to me, asked.

He got right down to business, didn’t he? “Illusions. But I think they’re getting wise. You?”

“Drug immunity.”

I stared at him. “That’s it?

He shrugged. “I used to be a Belian. Seemed pretty nice to me at the time.”

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Fine. Please tell me you have backup. Someone else had to have taken out the soldiers in the blood shop.”

“They did, but I don’t know what happened to them. One of the soldiers must have got a good hit in. Still, I’m pretty sure we’re down to two bad guys.” He looked me over, frowning. “How good are you with those claws?”

“I can open bottles. That’s about it. I’m not a fighter.”

“Aren’t you a ferret?”

Nosferatu,” I corrected automatically. “And I’m not the one who got shot half-dead.”

He frowned, but didn’t press the point one way or another. “They’re going to figure out where we went soon.” He flipped a knife off his belt. “Can you take him out?”

I looked at his knife, then shook my head firmly. “I’m not a fighter.”

“Yes, I heard you the first time.” He sighed. “I’ll have to do it.”

I grabbed his arm before he could get up. “You’re still injured!”

“I have healing buffs. I’ll be fine.”

“We both know it’s not that easy! Even if you have troll-level buffs, you need a few minutes.”

“Use one of your illusions to distract them.”

“I told you, they’re getting wise. And there are no more vampire patrols in the area.” I sighed. “I didn’t want to do this, but we need to go upstairs. There might be someone up there, somewhere, that can help us.”

The Mal looked hesitant. “Nyashk ordered us not to involve civilians.”

I rolled my eyes. “It’s Domina City. Do we even have civilians?” He still looked hesitant. “Look, it’s either we get help, we wait for more Mals—”

“Closest is a mile away,” he said.

“—or we sit here and die. At which point those soldiers might decide to go up the stairs and kill everyone anyway.”

That was a lie. Or a twisted truth, at best. Yes, the soldiers might go on a random killing spree. But American soldiers were known for placing high value on the lives of civilians, even enemy ones. From what I had heard of the battle so far, they seemed to be keeping themselves contained.

There was the tinkle of broken glass outside the shop, followed by a crunch as someone stepped on it. “I think I found something,” one of the soldiers called.

I glared at the Mal, then ran up the stairs.

He cursed under his breath, but followed, swiftly and silently. He made me feel like a lumbering ogre.

Either due to luck or skill, we managed to pass without the soldiers noticing, even as I heard them moving deeper into the store. They’d find the stairs at the back soon enough. They were hidden from the entrance for aesthetic reasons, but nothing more.

The second floor of the building was storage. I left the door open, but otherwise we ignored it. Hopefully it would slow the soldiers down for a few minutes, but that was all we could hope for. We ran up the stairs again by silent agreement.

Third floor was more storage, while fourth was an apartment—an empty one. As was the fifth.

Noapte adâncă,” I cursed under my breath. “E ca si cum universul conspira împotriva noastră.”

“I didn’t understand half of that,” the Mal panted. “But I don’t think I can keep going.”

I checked his wounds, specifically his chest and leg wounds. They were oozing blood, despite his buffs trying to keep them closed. Running up four flights of stairs had me winded, but it was killing him.

Sângerare noapte.” I dragged him into the empty apartment, closing the door behind us as quietly as I could. “We need to get you something. A stimpack at least. Have your buffs pushed the bullets out yet?”

“No, but I think there’s only one or two still in me. The rest just went straight through.” He collapsed to the floor. “Deep night… tell me I’m not leaving a blood trail.”

I helped him into a chair. “You’re not.” Of course, I could smell blood from a block away, but these soldiers would have baseline noses. I could barely remember having a nose so weak, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t be able to track us by scent.

I rummaged through the desk drawers, but I didn’t find anything. No first aid kits, no convenient stimpacks just left lying around. C’mon, there had to be something

My hand closed on a needle, capped to keep it from poking anything. Hah! Found it! Now I just needed to—

Then I realized that it wasn’t just a needle. It had two smaller vials strapped to either side, ready to mix something into the main syringe at the absolute last second to ensure maximum potency. There was no label, but I didn’t need one. Anyone would recognize this.

Psycho. Belial’s favorite. Increased pain tolerance, aggression, and strength, along with decreased pain awareness, intelligence, and basic reasoning skills. I had seen people buffed with psycho bash straight through a brick wall—without even trying the unlocked door five feet away.

“What is it?” the Mal asked. “What did you find?”

I showed him.

He went silent for a moment. “Oh,” he said quietly. “Well. That would work.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” I said. “Even if not for your power, your body might not be able to hold out.”

“I can turn my power off. And my body will hold. With psycho, a decayed skeleton will get up and kill people.”

“Which brings us to the next problem. I’m sure you don’t mind killing enemy soldiers—”

“I mind a little, but what other choice do we have?”

That derailed me a tiny bit—it was Domina City, who cared about killing people?—but I rallied. “But that’s not the issue here. If you don’t want to use the psycho, that’s fine, but we need something. We’re trapped up here.”

He closed his eyes. “Do it.”

I hesitated, but not for long. “Hold still.” I took his arm, eyeballed the vein, and stabbed in the needle as quickly as possible, wincing as I did. He barely even seemed to notice. A former Belian would never flinch from a needle.

I took a deep breath and pressed the plunger down on the needle.

He twitched, and I pulled out the syringe as fast as I could, before he had a chance to rip it out messily. He bled slightly from the entry would, but it clotted and sealed in seconds as I watched. His buffs really were pretty good.

He stood stock still, like a statue. I couldn’t even see him breathing, but I could smell him exhaling every few seconds, just a tiny bit.

“…Honored Nightstalker?” I asked quietly.

He opened his eyes. They were nighteyes, so they were as pure black as my own, but something about them seemed… crazed. A tint of red, or maybe just a subtle twitch.

Run,” he hissed through clenched teeth.

I dodged out of the way just in time as he roared in rage and charged head-first towards the stairs. He hit the wall, but just roared again and turned down the stairwell. I didn’t hear what the Americans said when they saw him, but I heard the gunfire, and the answering roar of a man with nothing left in his blood but chemical fire.

I could help him. A few careful illusions in the confusion could be invaluable.

But it would also put me in danger.

As the gunfire from below increased, I opened a nearby window as quietly as I could and slipped outside. The edge was only an inch wide, not even wide enough for my feet, but my claws were sharp and my fingers strong. I managed to cling to the face of the building, slowly sidling along the way until I reached the next one. I opened a window there as well—very nearly falling as I did—and slipped inside.

The gunfire had stopped. It was possible the Mal had killed both the soldiers, but I didn’t hear the roars and rage of a man high on psycho.

I could have saved him.

Instead, I found a corner and sat down with my back against the wall, legs pulled up against my chest.

I wasn’t a fighter.

Behind the Scenes (scene 279)

Ileana has been around for a while, but I haven’t really had a chance to use her. Hopefully this gives a better view of her character.

Scene 278 – Portam Nocte

PORTAM NOCTE

JEFFERIES

My name is Robert Jefferies. Private First Class, or so they tell me. A month in basic training, and then put on a boat and shipped off to fight an American city.

“This isn’t what I signed up for,” a soldier next to me, an Indian man with bright blue eyes, muttered to himself. In the cramped confines of the troop transport, it was hard not to overhear. “Supposed to be an easy paycheck…”

I remained silent. Scared as I was, this was exactly what I had signed on for. It was literally the reason I had been born. No time for complaining now. The boats would be nearing the shore at any moment.

“Ten seconds until landfall,” a calm voice sounded over the radio.

The Indian man next to me started praying in German. Most of the other soldiers tensed up as well, expecting the worst. We were packed into the metal can like sardines, which didn’t help.

Not me. I was going to die. If not today, in a week. That gives a certain clarity of purpose.

The hull scraped against something solid. Light flowed in as the gangplank opened, slamming down onto something.

We rushed out with the haste and surety of training, and quickly found ourselves on a long concrete dock, outside the walls of the city proper. There was no one else here, but there did seem to be barbecues, of all things, set into the concrete itself.

Our squad leader barked an order, and we all moved down the dock, towards the wall, guns up and ready.

The wall itself was huge. It felt like a hundred feet tall, but that couldn’t be right. The gate, a giant metal monstrosity that looked like it was designed to stop nukes, was firmly shut.

“Anybody see a doorbell?” someone muttered. Laughter rippled through the group.

Our sergeant smiled, but didn’t otherwise acknowledge the joke. “Breachers, forward!”

A dozen soldiers with large, bulky backpacks pushed through the ranks and started slapping small discs onto the metal door. They even tossed a few up higher, where they clamped on magnetically.

“Back up!” the sergeant cried, and we all obeyed in a wave. “Three… two… one… breach!”

I was expecting an explosion. Instead, gears inside the massive door whined, and it began to creak open.

“Everyone in!”

I was among the first to slip through the widening crack between the doors. I scanned the city with my gun held ready, establishing a beachhead. The first thing I noticed was that it was dark. Somehow, despite it being mid-morning, the sun just didn’t penetrate here. Midnight would have been less dark. At least there would have been stars.

The light from the gate illuminated some, but not much. Wide, empty streets and tall buildings without any lights on. There seemed to be a shopping center or open-air food court of some type. There were tables and chairs scattered around in a wide open pattern. Looking up, I thought I saw the edge of some sort of tarp far above, strung between the buildings to provide shade. How odd.

We could hear distant gunfire, but it didn’t seem to be directed at us. It was just echoing through the streets like the ghost of a battle. I almost thought that was the sound of the other gates, but that didn’t make sense. Even if they had already engaged, we wouldn’t be able to hear them from here. There must be a gang fight deeper in the city.

“Put on your lamps,” the sergeant grunted. He already had his on, and I hastened to obey. “No flashlights.”

We had been issued light amplification goggles—lamps—ahead of time. No one had explained exactly what they were for. I guess this was it.

I slipped mine on and hit the switch, then winced. The dark streets were suddenly as bright as day—and the gate behind us as bright as the sun.

“We’re leaving the gate open!” the sergeant said before anyone could ask. “Need a line of retreat. Just don’t look at it.”

In a few moments, we had about a hundred men through the gate, all wearing lamps and ready for anything. More would be coming, but this was more than enough to advance, maybe set up a base camp a few streets up.

We marched forward in tight formation, guns up as we traversed the dark streets. But there was nothing. We didn’t encounter so much as a single person, though at one point I did see a pair of dogs eating from a dumpster. They ran off before we got too close.

“This is creepy,” the Indian man next to me muttered, looking back the way we had come. We had taken a few turns at this point, so the bright light of the gate was out of sight. “Maybe we should start knocking on doors.”

The sergeant heard him. “Orders are not to disturb the civilians more than we have to. We’re here to save this city, not conquer it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hold.” The sergeant stopped us as we began to turn a corner. I was near the front, and could see what had stopped him. There was someone in the middle of the street up ahead, a naked man with skin as white as chalk. “You three. Forward. Everyone else, eyes sharp. This could be a trap.”

The three soldiers he had indicated walked forward slowly, guns steady. The man wasn’t too far away, maybe ten or twenty yards.

“Sir?” one of them said as they got close. “You all right? We’re from America, sir. We’re here to help you.”

The man stood. Our soldiers took a few visible steps back, nervous. The man was easily six feet tall, and had muscles like a linebacker. He was also completely naked, revealing a smooth crotch like a Ken doll.

“I—uh—” The soldier who had been speaking glanced back at the sergeant.

The man spoke first.

“Your services to your country are to be commended,” he said with a friendly and fatherly voice. “I salute you.”

“Yeah, that’s… thanks, man. I just—”

“I am sorry.”

And then day broke.

Some instinct led me to rip off my goggles as he raised his arms, so the blinding radiance he suddenly emitted didn’t hit me as hard as everyone else. I heard screams, and the sounds of bodies hitting the ground. Dead? Unconscious? I had no idea.

I might not have been hit as hard, but I was still completely blinded. It was like a second sun that had been born in the street in front of us. Shielding my face barely helped at all, and I could feel tears streaming down my cheeks. And someone was… singing?

Someone was singing in Hebrew. I didn’t recognize more than one word out of ten, but the tone of the song was low and sad, almost apologetic.

It was a death song. I knew that suddenly. Someone was singing us to our graves.

I scrambled back, away from the fight, and into an alley we had passed moments ago. I still couldn’t see, but my memory had always been good. I put my back to a dumpster and pointed my gun in front of me, blinking as fast as I could to try and clear my eyes.

Things started to get blurry, but that was an improvement on the shapeless mass of white my sight had been moments ago. There was someone in front of the alley—a soldier? The man from the street? No, neither. This man was smaller, and had something in each hands. Knives.

I made a decision, and fired.

Bullets cut through the air, and the thing at the front of the alley dropped. A moment later, someone else fired, and I thought they were shooting at me. They weren’t. Must be some of the others from my company, realizing that shooting was their best chance of survival.

The gunfire didn’t last long.

Within a minute or two, it faded, but so had my blindness. Of course, now I couldn’t see anything because it was still dark as night. I wasn’t planning on putting my lamp back on, but it was better than nothing. And the death song had faded as well, which was a good sign.

I crept up to the front of the alley and poked the corpse with a boot. It was… a person, but too androgynous to tell what, exactly. They had white tattoos that looked like Hebrew, but I couldn’t read them. The knives they had been carrying were buffed to a perfect reflective sheen. Like mirrors.

I turned around the corner again, gun up, to find maybe fifty of my fellow soldiers in a panicked huddle. They were surrounded by corpses. Some of the corpses were the naked people, but most of the bodies were American soldiers.

Including the sergeant.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to draw attention to myself, but…

“Everybody, form up!” I called. I stalked over to the sergeant and ripped off his radio. “Defensive positions, we don’t know when they’ll come back! Strip ammo off the bodies, then leave them!”

The men looked a little hesitant, but they obeyed. They were trained well, considering how horribly this had gone.

“Control, this is the forward company,” I said into the radio. “We’ve been ambushed. Half our men are dead, sergeant’s dead, and I don’t think we made a dent in the enemy. They’ve got some… light ability, don’t know what to call it. Don’t use the goggles. Just use flashlights.”

There was a brief pause, then the radio crackled. “Confirmed, forward company. We’re sending reinforcements. Infantry first, then the echoes. Stand by.”

I took a deep breath. Echoes. Good. With those, we’d be fine. We should have led with them. “Confirmed, command. We’ll hold. You have our position?”

“Loud and clear. GPS is solid.”

“Good. Over and out.”

I swallowed, trying not to let my nerves show to the men. I had no idea what the plan was here. But whatever the plan was, it had gone to hell in a hand basket. So I guess the sergeant wouldn’t be doing much better than me if he had lived.

Our eyes were starting to adjust to the dark, if barely. Still couldn’t see real detail, but at least we could see if someone was coming. The fact that they hadn’t yet had me worried. Whoever and whatever these people were, they clearly knew exactly what they were doing.

After several heart-pounding minutes, two more squads ran up the street. Their flashlights bounced around like rays from heaven.

“Echoes are about twenty minutes behind,” the man in front said. He was a sergeant, and I quickly fell into step behind him. “This will be our base camp! Drag those dumpsters over here, we need some more walls!”

Men moved to obey, and I pulled the sergeant aside to speak with him. “Did you see what these people could do?”

He shook his head. “Something about light?”

“I don’t know what to call it. I think we’re outmatched.”

He gave me a look. “We can handle a couple nightlights, private.”

“That’s not what I meant. I meant that this is not something we expected the toy maker to be capable of. We’re operating on flawed information here, in the enemy’s home. We’re sitting ducks.”

“…are you suggesting we retreat?”

I shook my head. “No. I’m suggesting we switch to defensive until we have more intel. Fortify this position and the gate, shoot or capture anyone who comes too close. Don’t overextend ourselves.”

He nodded slowly. “Good ideas. Very good. Did you try for officer corp?”

I cursed inwardly. Don’t draw attention…

“We’ll talk about that later. For now, organize some men, secure the perimeter. I’ll grab some grunts to move the bodies out of the way.”

“Good idea, sir.” I walked over to a small group of soldiers who didn’t seem to be busy.

Before I could get to them, the flashlights started flickering.

One of the soldiers frowned and started whacking it as if that would fix it. But the problem was with all the flashlights, not just his.

“We put in fresh batteries this morning,” he said. “I don’t know what would—”

He was interrupted by all the lights going out at once.

A few moments later, they returned, revealing him dead on the ground with his throat cut.

“GUNS UP!” the sergeant yelled. Everyone obeyed instantly. “You see something that’s not us, SHOOT IT! No questions asked!”

I backed up towards the sergeant, keeping my gun level and eyes scanning. “This is different from before.”

He nodded. “The first group makes us get rid of the lamps, then the second group comes in under the cover of darkness. Simple and effective.”

“How do you think they got our flashlights like that?”

“No idea. Some sort of electromagnetic distortion, like an EMP but weaker?”

The flashlights started flickering again.

“Everyone STAND READY!” the sergeant yelled. “No surprises!”

I had a thought as the flashlights kept flickering, and the men shook so hard I could hear their gear clicking. The light-people shouldn’t be directly involved in this ambush. So that meant if I put on the light amplification goggles…

I slipped them on just as the flashlights died. Just in time to see someone sneaking up behind another of the soldiers.

I didn’t hesitate. I fired, hitting him solid in the chest. He stumbled, but didn’t fall, turning towards me and hissing. I heard other soldiers shooting. Were they panic-firing, or shooting at friends of this one?

He had black eyes and massive fangs, in addition to the long, sharp claws on his hands. He rushed forward, almost faster than I could see. I fired again and again, finally piercing the Kevlar body armor he must have been wearing.

He fell to the ground, dead.

The flashlights came back on.

I cursed and ripped off my lamp, blinking away the brightness from my eyes.

The sergeant clapped me on the back. “Good shot.”

Before I could answer, rumbling laughter rolled through the city.

“You shouldn’t have done that, boy,” a deep, amused voice said. “They take it personally when you kill one of their own.”

I raised my gun, searching for the source of the voice, but didn’t respond.

The sergeant did, though. “Who are you? Show yourself!”

“I am called the Dragon.”

“These your men!?”

“No. These are men and women of Domina City, who do not wish to see their homes defiled.”

The sergeant swallowed and looked at me, at a loss for words.

Don’t stand out…

“We’re not here for your homes or your people!” I called. “We’re just here to get rid of the gangs!”

That same rumbling laugh as before. “The gangs are the homes and the people, little boy… no, no wait.” His tone changed, to something curious. “Glasya tells me you’re not a boy at all. You’re a homunculus.”

My blood froze in my veins.

That wasn’t what I was actually called. There was some long name that spelled out a meaningless acronym I hadn’t bothered to learn. AGBHC or something like that. But I had looked up some terms online, learned which ones applied to me.

Homunculus. A word the Greek alchemists used.

It meant false-man.

How had they known? How could they possibly have known? I was made from the toy maker, but that shouldn’t mean anything. American scientists were completely cut off from Dominite ones. Did they have some magic device that let them detect things made from the toy maker?

I took a deep breath. “I’m more of a man than you. Come down and show yourself!”

He chuckled. “Tempting, bruscar. More tempting than you know. But I did not reach my position by taking stupid risks.” The flashlights began to flicker again. “Our nightstalkers will handle you just fine.”

As before, when the lights went out, I slipped on my lamp. This time, most of the other soldiers followed my example.

It gave us just enough time to see almost a hundred of the black-eyed assassins dropping down from the sky.

Behind the Scenes (scene 278)

“AGBHC” stands for “Artificially Grown Biological Humanoid Construct,” by the way.

Scene 274 – Domus

DOMUS

FIERNA

December 22nd, Saturday. Saturday, Saturday. I needed to keep that in mind. It was important. Days were important. They were something to latch onto in the haze of drugs.

Saturday.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed through the broad glass double doors into the building. I was still wearing my sensual coat, but now I had a black bodysuit underneath for the sake of decency. When my father was in charge, I hadn’t bothered, but now when leaving the domain I needed to present a more respectable image.

Saturday. Don’t get distracted. Saturday.

“I am here to speak to Bel,” I said, striding towards the elevators without waiting for an answer.

The twins behind the desk jumped up and spoke with one voice. “You can’t see Bel without an appointment!”

I pushed past the pod-brain hard enough to send one of the bodies into a wall. “I’m done waiting.”

I stepped inside the first elevator, then glared at the vampires inside. The drakes might not have recognized me, but they knew an angry Noble when they saw one, and ran out as fast as they could. I jabbed the button for the top floor, and waiting patiently as the elevator rose quickly.

Eventually, it stopped, but the doors didn’t open.

“We’re sorry,” a female voice dripping with condescending friendliness said out of the speaker. “But this is Noble Bel’s penthouse suite. You are not authorized to be here without an appointment. Please choose another floor.”

Tempted as I was to rip open the elevator doors, they would be prepared for that. Not only was the penthouse armored like a bunker, but the cable would probably cut, and I would fall a hundred stories in this metal box.

Instead, I jabbed the call button. “Tell Bel Fierna is here to see him.”

The reply was instantaneous. “Noble Bel is in a meeting right now. If you would be willing to wait a few hours, we would be more than happy to set something up at a later date. Tomorrow night, perhaps.”

“Tell Bel that I’m here, and I’m not leaving until he sees me. I’ll live in this damn elevator if I have to.”

There was a pause, then the doors opened.

Bel’s penthouse was nothing special, as vampire suites went. Polarized windows that could darken during the day but allow a beautiful view of the city at night. Nightlights in the ceiling—currently dark—and a nice wet bar in the corner. He had his bedroom and a kitchen hidden somewhere, but out here in the foyer there was just lots of open space and a couple scattered couches.

In the center of the room stood Bel, Noble of Avernus, Lord of the Bronze Throne. He didn’t look much like a vampire. He had big muscles and pebbly red skin, very strange for a vampire. Not even the Nosferatu used those toys. But he had black eyes and a mouth full of overly large fangs, which was enough. He stood with back ramrod straight, betraying nothing.

He was alone. I knew he wasn’t meeting anyone.

“Fierna,” he said curtly.

“Uncle Barry,” I snarled.

He sighed. “Fi…”

No,” I said. “No no no. I was hoping you didn’t realize it was me. I was hoping you thought I was just some pretender to the throne, and that you were denying meetings due to some, I don’t know, honoring the dead thing.”

“Fi, it’s more complicated than—”

“But you knew it was me,” I spat. “You knew this whole time, and you refused meetings set up by the Dragon himself. You always idolized Dracul, Uncle. Has that changed in the past five years, too?”

“Can you just let me say—”

“What could possibly justify—”

“YOU RAPED HER!”

I shut my mouth with a snap.

His fists were clenched hard enough that his nails were drawing blood; I could smell it in the air. His eyes were wild, and he was breathing heavily. He looked like he was about to charge me like an animal.

“At Shendilavri, you raped Lilith. You tried to break her.”

“She’s forgiven me for that,” I said quietly.

“Well I haven’t! You did unspeakable things to the only mother I’ve ever known, and you expect me to just shut up and work with you?”

“Uncle Barry, you’re ten years older than her—”

“So what?” He shook his head. “When I came to this city, I had nothing. I became a demon because of her, then a vampire, then a Noble. All because of her. That beautiful woman who would even forgive someone like you.”

He took a deep breath, and walked over to the bar.

“Uncle Barry—”

“Get out,” he said tiredly. “And if your dad’s still alive, tell him I’ll kill him if he ever shows his face again.”

I rolled my eyes. “Dad is not alive. You saw his body yourself.”

He poured himself a drink, muttering. “Body doubles, clones…”

“You did a DNA test. And you know he didn’t fake the corpse. The drugged-up Noble of a drugged-up culture wouldn’t be able to manage something like that.”

Bel didn’t say anything, but I knew I’d made my point. Not only was my dad horrible with the toy maker, but none of the cultures who sided with Malcanthet were much better. The people who worked with the toy maker on regular basis were known for being pretty devoted to the Mother Monster. Even the mercenary sibriex had refused to help Malcanthet.

“What of your mother?”

I sighed. “She tried to run. Got past the Belians pretty easily, but Lupa caught her, executed her before she could make any more trouble. She’s probably buried somewhere under Shendilavri right now.”

His hand tightened on his glass. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

“I still want you to leave.”

“This is bigger than us,” I insisted. “We need an army.”

“The city has an army. One not made of slaves and slavers.”

I gave him a look—wasted, since he was peering into his glass. “Uncle Barry. Do you know how many soldiers this city has?”

“No.”

I shrugged. “Fair enough, neither do I. But don’t you think that an extra two hundred thousand freed vampire slaves will make a difference?”

He looked up, blinking. “Two hundred thousand? Really? I thought Phlegethos was dying!”

“Two hundred thousand sclavi. A thousand true Belians.” I shook my head. “Balan and the others thought to compensate for our low nightstalker numbers by using addiction to swell the ranks of our slaves. But now the time of such things is over. I don’t need them ready by the time the war with America starts. I need your help weaning the sclavi off their addictions, as well as de-programming them.”

“Your mother didn’t exactly leave notes on her process lying around.”

“I can have those sent to you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You can? Then why not just de-program them yourselves?”

“First, they’d still be addicted and vulnerable. There’s not enough fixer in the city to keep every single one of them sober. Second, she didn’t leave notes on de-programming. And we don’t have enough skill with the brainwashing in the first place to figure it out.”

Bel frowned. “Gaziel could at least puzzle out some of it.”

I closed my eyes. “I… killed Gaziel. He tried to assassinate me a couple times, and… look, it’s not important. The point is, you’re the only one I trust with the skills I need. Please, help me undo my mother’s work. It’s what she wanted, at the end.”

He groaned and downed his glass. “Black night, girl, using your mother against me is low.”

“It’s for a good cause.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what Dracul and Ishtar said…”

“You know I wouldn’t have gotten either one of them involved if that wasn’t true.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I heard what happened to poor Gazra. How is he?”

“We had to manually repair his pelvis with the toy maker.”

Bel shook his head, still smiling. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t be laughing…”

I failed to suppress a smile myself. “I’d ask you to keep it secret, but Ishtar has already been telling anyone who will listen. She’s having dinner with Glasya about now. I’m sure it will be all across the city by dawn.”

Bel paused for a moment, playing with his empty glass.

“I still don’t forgive you,” he said quietly.

I nodded. “I know.”

“Mother preaches forgiveness, but it’s hard…”

“I know.”

He took a deep breath. “Give me the notes and a hundred sclavi. The worst of the worst. I should have them fully de-toxed by tomorrow night. Not sure about the de-programming. If we’re lucky, we can do it at the same time, but don’t hold your breath. Either way, once the first batch is done, the rest will go faster.”

I bowed low. “Thank you, Noble Bel.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said gruffly. “Thank my mother.”

I smiled sadly. “I think I will. We haven’t spoken since I took back the throne.”

“Does she know you’re back?”

“She must. And she knew who I was when I was working for Necessarius. When did you think I earned her forgiveness?”

He shook his head. “I should have known. Wish she could have told me, though…”

“It wasn’t her secret to tell.” Besides, when several hundred million people see you as their mother, it’s a little hard to give them all reasonable amounts of your time. That was why she worked like she did.

“Yes, I suppose not.” He waved his hand and turned back to the bar. “Send me your sclavi, Noble Fierna. Let’s save your stupid culture, and this city along with it.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 274)

Ah, Bel. He’s a fun one to write. This was probably his worst scene, but it was still fun. He’s at his best when interacting with Clarke. Hopefully we get an opportunity to see them snarking at each other soon.

Scene 271 – Purgatio

PURGATIO

FIERNA

It was Friday, December thirteenth. No… no, that was yesterday. Saturday, Saturday the fourteenth. I needed to remember that. Dates were important. Everything was important, but dates were important. If I lost dates, I was losing everything.

The mentats supplied by my chem glands kept my brain sharp. But if I lost my mind, my brain was just along for the ride. Needed to keep my mind to keep my brain. Keep my mind to keep my brain.

Saturday, Saturday.

“Please, Honored Noble!” the vampire at the foot of my throne begged, weeping. “Have mercy.”

I sipped from a wine glass of unflavored blood. My father had ordered that no one was allowed to flavor their blood, and Balan had kept that ridiculous edict going for years. That would be fine, but Gazra had used up all my hidden stash of flavoring while I was gone. Bastard. I had ordered him to find more, but no one was selling to us right now. Not even anything as innocent as flavor packets.

The point was, my day was not going well.

I leaned down, shoulders held expertly to keep my cloak on. “Why, exactly, should I grant you mercy, Ningal? Did you give any to your sclavi, or to your husband, for that matter?” I leaned back. “You remind me of Xinivrae.”

The petite woman flinched as if she had been slapped.

Perhaps that was too harsh. I swished the liquid around in my glass. “Ningal, your story is a simple one. You were powerless and oppressed, so when you found power, you oppressed others. I am not interested in some petty vengeance.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“I am interested in loyalty.”

“Honored Noble, I never stopped searching for you—”

“Yes. I know. You sent Inanna and her get after me.”

She flinched again. “Y-yes, but only as a test! I wasn’t sure it was you, and I knew you’d handle them flawlessly—”

“Stop.”

Her mouth shut with a click.

I rose from my throne and stepped around her, robe trailing on the ground. “Do you know what my father’s favorite pass time was, Ningal?”

“…yes, Honored Noble,” she said quietly.

I ignored her. “He loved bringing the strong down low. So he would force powerful drugs onto his enemies, turn them into little more than pliable pieces of walking meat, ready to be brainwashed to serve his every whim.”

I placed my free hand on her shoulder. She was shaking like a leaf.

“Perhaps that would be justice. Make you a sclav, give you a taste of what it is like to suffer under another. It is not a lesson someone with your origins would normally need, but you have clearly forgotten where you came from.”

“M-my lady Fierna, please.” She gripped my leg, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. “Please, I’ll do anything. Just—just not that. Don’t make me go back to that.”

I smiled, and patted her gently on the head. “Don’t worry, Ningal. I am not my father. I am not you, either. I know what it is like to be trapped in a haze of drugs and worse. I would not wish that on anyone.”

“T-thank you, Honored Noble! Thank you so, so much!”

“But I still can’t trust you.”

I snapped her neck with one hand.

I stepped over her corpse. “Chamberlain. What was her power?”

The vampire standing next to my throne with a pad tapped through it. “Nothing that we needed. Another variant on consuming blood.”

I nodded. “Ah, yes. She was the one who gained fire powers based on how much blood she drank, correct?”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“Ah, well. If we need pyros, we can call the Canians.” I waved my hand. “Ia-o de aici.”

My sclavi moved quickly, picking up the corpse and dragging it down the hall to Ogrémoch’s lair.

The sclavi were still mindless, unfortunately. We had been studying my mother’s notes and her work, but there was only so much we could do when Bel wasn’t willing to help us. We were a culture of hedonistic idiots, not scientists.

Gazra stepped around the corner, holding a small paper bag in his hands. “Is this a bad time?”

I rubbed the spot where my fixer used to be out of habit. “Yes. But I don’t suppose waiting will make it better.” I nodded to my chamberlain, and he left without a word. “Are those my flavors? Where did you get them?”

“A nice old vamp in Little Romania. Didn’t recognize me.”

I frowned. “I was hoping people recognized you, but were still willing to sell.”

He shook his head. “No such luck. Things might go easier if you ask Ishtar for help.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please. I asked her for help in joining Necessarius in the first place.”

“And that worked out fine. She didn’t say a word to anyone for five years. Balan even had her tortured in the early days, but she still kept her mouth shut.”

I briefly considered punishing him for that, but decided against it. Ishtar seemed to have forgiven him, I had to as well. “I’ll consider sending an envoy to talk to her. See if she can get a meeting with… Glasya, perhaps. Or maybe even Aka Manah.”

“She’ll be happier if you go.”

I laughed, and finally grabbed the bag from his hands, carrying it over to a nearby table. “Yes, she would be far happier. But I have work to do here. It is important that the people see that the throne is filled.”

“You’re just using that as an excuse.”

I rolled my eyes as I rooted through the bag. Where were the cinnamon ones? He knew I loved cinnamon. “I could always send you.”

“…she might actually kill me this time.”

“Death by sex isn’t such a bad way to go.”

“It’s less fun than it sounds, trust me.” He shook his head. “Plus I hear her power has something to do with her endurance—during the Rampage, she didn’t sleep at all. She had enough stamina before.”

I sighed. “I’ll talk to Bathym.” He was one of the few people she had never tried to seduce. Some said that it was because he was gay, but she always just considered that a challenge. I had a feeling that they were related in some way and just hadn’t told me.

Gazra poured a glass of his own. He put the powder in first, as always. “Has there been any word from Bel?”

“Just curt refusals. I still don’t know if he’s ignoring me because he doesn’t think I’m Fierna, or if he does, and doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

He swilled his drink around. “I thought it would obviously be the first one. He always liked you. Didn’t your mom introduce you? Without your dad around to screw things up?”

I grunted, and drank my own glass. “Well, yes, but there was that whole thing about helping Malcanthet try to break the Mother Monster.”

Gazra winced. “Yeah, I should have thought of that. But didn’t she forgive you?”

“Of course she did. She forgave everyone involved. Except maybe Lupa herself. But Bel is… well, he’s Bel. He can hold a grudge.”

He gave me an odd look. “You described him as a big old nerd who likes playing with the toy maker.”

“Nerds are good at holding grudges. It’s similar to the problem with Ningal. Somebody’s powerless for most of their lives, then you give them enough to get a little revenge, and…” I shrugged. “You’ve got quite the monster on your hands.”

Gazra snorted and sipped at his drink again. “Bel only looks like a monster.”

“But he’s good at holding grudges.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll deal with Bel later. For now, Dracul will be willing to meet—”

“I think I’d prefer to focus on internal matters right now,” I said quickly. “I’m still worried about Balan’s loyalty, and a lot of the nightstalkers don’t like the sound of my idea to give the sclavi their minds back. Ningal’s death will help, but I need to make some examples—”

“Fi,” he said. “Don’t run from this.”

I closed my eyes. “You know I hate talking to that man. He treats me like a child.”

“Children run from their problems.”

I cracked an eye open. “I ripped my damned fixer right off my arm, don’t say I run from anything.”

“And before that, you were running around anonymously as one of Butler’s random goons.”

I glowered, and sipped my drink. “Why do I keep you around?”

He shrugged, and put his own glass down. “Maybe because you know you need someone to tell you when you’re being stupid.”

“I kill most people who do that.”

He was unconcerned. “Or to remind you about important things outside the culture, like the Dragon being the only person willing to meet with you, or the war that’s coming to the city.”

“Even if Bel started working with us today, we wouldn’t crack my mother’s secrets soon enough to fight. Our sclavi will just be a liability in a large-scale battle.”

Or maybe I just have really nice hands.” He was behind me now, his nimble fingers working on my shoulder blades through the coat. “I think you have five years of knots here. Doesn’t Necessarius have masseuses?”

I smirked, even as I closed my eyes and let him continue. “Not covered under our insurance.”

“Maybe I should be upset about that on your behalf, but our insurance is still crap.”

“What about South Central Medical?”

“Went bankrupt a couple years ago.”

I groaned as he continued working on my shoulders. “Sânge și umbra… more problems to deal with.”

“You know the Dragon is good about helping with this sort of thing…”

I took a deep, tired breath. “He’s going to make us release the sclavi.”

“You want to release them!”

“Once we’ve weaned them off the physical chems, not just dump them in the street! If we—” He worked a knot in my upper back. “Ooh. If we release them, every single one of them will be snapped up by Butler.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad.”

I turned my head to give him a sidelong look. “For them? No, that would be fine.” I turned away again. “For us? It would be the death of the culture.”

There was a pause, as I leaned on the table while he continued massaging my shoulders.

“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

I turned around, knocking his hands aside. His face betrayed little emotion.

“You never wanted to be Fierna,” he said mildly. “You hate everything your father has built.”

“If Phlegethos falls, the Belians don’t fall with it,” I snapped. “They fracture. There will be a hundred different wanna-be warlords scrambling for control.”

“That didn’t happen when Malcanthet fell. Or any of a dozen kemo warlords I could name. Or, if you want to talk about vampires, when Perrikus died, or Tserron turned angel, or when Rimmon joined with Asmodeus.”

“We’re chem-heads, Gazra. Anybody could make a thousand more of us in a month, if they were following my father’s orders rather than mine. There’s no defense against getting injected with psycho and brainwashed.”

“But they won’t be Belians,” he insisted. “They won’t be your problem.”

“They will be. And they will be.” I shook my head. “Even if they’re not using my mother’s protocols, they’ll still be caused by me, by letting this culture break apart too fast. We can’t let this happen, especially not with war looming.”

Gazra sighed. “I know you’re not going to want to hear this—” He frowned, looking behind me. “Who’s that?”

I turned around. There was someone standing there in a black cloak, their face hidden behind the hood. That itself wasn’t too exceptional—vampires liked black, and they liked hoods. But hiding your face in front of your warlord was hardly polite. “You there. Arăta fața ta.”

They charged without a word.

Gazra and I split apart instantly, him countering the charge head on while I dodged back to grab the St. Euphemia I kept stashed behind my throne. Assassins would be ready for a warlord. It was surprising how few of them considered we might just grab a gun.

When I raised the Necessarian weapon and pointed it at the melee, I took in the situation at a glance. Our opponent was still cloaked, but was dodging Gazra’s superhumanly fast punches with ease. Gazra could go faster if he used his power, but that had tradeoffs.

Impuscaturi!” I yelled. Gazra dodged back, out of my firing line.

Unfortunately, our assailant understood Romanian, and dashed forward, trying to keep Gazra within melee range so that I couldn’t shoot. Before they closed the distance again, I fired, just a short burst.

The assistant leaped back, dodging the bullets that tore through the table I had been standing next to just a moment ago. Whether through buffs or a power, this person had incredible reflexes, and would have to be trapped before—

My eyes caught something inside the robe. Just briefly, as it fluttered with movement, but I saw it.

White skin. Not Caucasian, white.

“Gazra!” I yelled. “Înger! Ochii tăi!

With the charade exposed, the angel ripped off his cloak, revealing a muscular white androgynous body, every inch of his skin covered in glowing Hebrew script. I had never seen an angel with so much angelic script on their body, and briefly wondered why.

Briefly, because I was busy dodging behind my throne and squeezing my eyes shut.

Even facing the other way with my hands over closed eyes, the daybreak was so bright it hurt my eyes. It felt like staring directly into the sun, and any other vampire in the room would have been knocked unconscious by the sudden shock. Our sclavi would probably have been killed.

But Gazra wasn’t just any vampire.

The daybreak died as the angel cursed loudly in Hebrew. I got up and fired another short burst, enough to give the assassin pause and Gazra time to catch his breath.

The flow of the battle had changed. Gazra pressed the attack almost desperately, refusing to let the angel get out of reach. He sidestepped my bullets with ease and took advantage of the opening provided to punch the man in the face.

The angel stumbled, and then made the mistake of holding up his palm and shining a light in Gazra’s face. It was so bright that I couldn’t even look at it, and left a bright white afterimage across my vision from just seeing it for a split second.

Gazra didn’t react.

After all, he was blind now.

There was a boom, and I looked up to see that the angel had been thrown across the room, into one of the concrete pillars near the walls. Before he could recover, I unloaded the rest of my St. Euphemia at him. My aim was poor from his light, but it was almost impossible to miss at this range. Dozens of bullets tore into him and the pillar behind him, until he slumped to the ground like a wet rag.

“Gazra, check him.”

“His heart’s not beating,” he said, despite standing about twenty feet away. “Is he glowing?”

“No. Bring your eyes back.”

He grimaced. “It takes about an hour.”

I nodded. “Forgot.” I stepped down off the dais and to the corpse of our assailant, reloading as I went. “Call the nearest nightstalker. Should be Nya, two floors up.” Phlegethos was full of slaves, but still felt empty because there were barely a handful of masters. There were only a thousand true Belian nightstalkers—and most of them didn’t live here. “We’ll need a cleanup crew.”

“Understood.” He took his phone out, then frowned as he tried to remember where all the buttons were.

Smiling, I turned to the corpse. The angelic script on his skin was ruined in a lot of places, but I could still read much of it. It was a poem, which wasn’t unheard of, but it was a much longer one than usual. And I couldn’t find any detail on the angel’s Name or Caste. That was odd.

Wait… there was one line…

“’And with the dawn shall break the darkness…’” I read. “Gazra, what’s that from?”

He thought for a moment. “Mertion. The Platinum Heaven. It’s part of their motto.”

“…Raziel sent this one.”

Gazra frowned. “You sure? Wouldn’t Pistis Sophia be more likely? Raziel wouldn’t send just one assassin.”

“He didn’t. This was a scout.”

Gazra nodded. “He’ll be sending Evansheer next.”

“Probably. Might send a few more probes in first. Hopefully this one didn’t kill too many of our sclavi on his way in.” I leaned forward and sniffed the corpse. “Nothing really worth mentioning. Some angel brand soaps, a little bit of foundry smell…” I blinked, then sniffed closer. “Do you smell that?”

“I killed my sense of smell for a small strength boost. Why?”

I got up, stalked over to the door, and ripped it open.

The sclavi guards stood there, perfectly unharmed, staring at me blankly.

I growled and shut the door again. “The angel was coated in Belian pheromones. The sclavi thought he was an ally.”

“How did they get—”

“Doesn’t matter! What matters is that we need the sclavi sane again yesterday!” I stalked over to my throne and slammed my hand down on the intercom. “Chamberlain! Get me a cleanup crew and a meeting with the Dragon!” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I turned to Gazra and pointed angrily. “You! You’re going to Ishtar, and she’s going to talk to Bel! We are getting this fixed, right now.”

He swallowed. “It’s—it’s going to take at least a day or two to—”

“Then GET STARTED!

He ran out of the throne room at top speed.

I sighed, and cast my gaze around the room, looking for the flavor packets he had brought with him.

They had been on the table I had shot up.

Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 271)

Fierna is a whole lot of fun to write. Gazra’s power is complicated, and I didn’t want to do another major info dump right away, but it will become clear later.

Scene 252 – Discessum

DISCESSUM

DEREK

This was shaping up to be a weird day.

I wasn’t exactly close with Kelly. She and the retinue had always stayed in the back with Adam, away from the screamers, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to talk to her off the job.

I didn’t know much about her, but I hadn’t thought I needed to. Sure, her name was obviously fake, but she was an ex-Belian, so that wasn’t a surprise. The fixer on her arm was more than a little disturbing as well, but not too much. The device monitored her blood and pumped counteragents that neutralized the drugs in her system; while the chemical fixer was common, the device of the same name was only necessary if you had drug producing glands. I had always wondered why she hadn’t just had those glands removed, but had resolved not to think about it.

Then we got dragged in front of the Belians, and she had ripped off the fixer.

Now, she sat on the Obsidian Throne of Abriymoch, claiming to be Fierna, daughter of Belial the Lord of Secrets, Noble of the Fourth Crypt. She was naked except for a seductively draped fur-lined cloak, and lounged on the oversized throne as easily as if it were a seat by a pool.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” she proclaimed. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The right of blood was obvious—she had killed her way to the top. I was less certain about the shadow one. That was something about fear, or political skill, about how her reputation was broad and deep like a shadow, or something. Or maybe it was just about knowing lots of secrets. Belial had been the Lord of Secrets, after all.

This was too much, too fast; everyone knew Fierna was dead, and I couldn’t think of anything Kelly had ever done to make me suspect otherwise. If I said anything, asked any questions, it might be taken as a challenge, and despite my earlier bluster, Adam and I couldn’t take the whole damn domain by ourselves. I didn’t know what to do.

The Nobles, however, seemed to have some idea. One of them, the one with the long and forked tongue and the strangely bulbous joints, started speaking despite the fact that he was still kneeling on the ground. “I do not doubt Noble Fierna’s right to our culture,” he said, his voice a little quiet. “But I do doubt this woman’s claim that she is our lady.” His voice gained strength, and he rose to his feet. “She is just some random ‘sarian traitor. You can still see the scars of the fixer on her arm. In time, she will—”

Kelly’s hand snapped out, stiff and flat as a knife but as fast as lightning.

The Noble’s head fell off, and his body collapsed to the ground a moment later.

I recognized the hungry look in Kelly’s eyes. It was the naked bloodlust that I had seen on Elizabeth’s face too many times. In this case, I would assume it was the result of the drugs in her system. Psycho and buffout, particularly, caused such reactions as a side effect of their strength increases.

With visible difficulty, she wrestled the feelings down. “Gaziel was well aware of who I am,” she explained patiently, ignoring the horrified looks we were all giving her. All of us except the Nobles flanking her throne, that is. They kept their heads obediently bowed. “He sent Chamo to recruit me, and when I responded to that rudely, sent Inanna to punish me.”

“Kel—Honored Noble,” I said, correcting myself mid-sentence as I stepped forward. “Forgive me for being… confused.”

She raised an eyebrow elegantly. “About what?”

About everything, but I didn’t say that. “About—”

I was interrupted by a tug on my leg.

Surprised, I looked down to see Alex, crying enough silent tears to fill a lake. The angel shook his head. “She can’t let us go,” he whispered. “Gazra will be on her side no matter what happens, but Balan and Bathym control the majority of the nightstalkers. Even with the sclavi, she can’t fight them all.”

“What are you saying?” I hissed back.

“Throw yourself on her mercy. It’s the only way she can save us.”

I frowned. I… was not fond of that idea. I was a paladin, technically a warlord, and more importantly, a Huntsman. I was not going to grovel before a drugged-up warlord, no matter who it was. I’d just have to—

“Apologies for the insolence, Honored Noble,” Laura said with a slightly stiff bow as she rose to her feet. I hadn’t even realized she was awake. “Knight Derek is a soldier, and not good with words.”

“Laura,” I hissed. “What are you doing—”

She shut me up with a glare.

Of course. I knew what she was doing—saving my ass.

“Speak, then, Highlander,” Kelly drawled. She definitely had that royal apathy down pat.

Laura winced at the nickname. “Please, Noble Fierna. That is the Composer’s name for me.”

The vampire nodded slowly. “Apologies, Dame Laura.” She extended her palm, as if offering us something. “Please, continue your defense. You have trespassed in my domain. Why should I allow you and yours to leave it alive?”

I kept my power at the ready, prepared to throw up a shield if things got messy. While the Nobles around the throne seemed content to stand around their warlord with heads bowed, the nightstalkers lining the rest of the room were less composed. Even if the slaves didn’t come into it, I wasn’t sure I could fight all of them at once if they decided to stop playing around.

Laura didn’t so much as blink. “We brought you home, Honored Noble. Allowing us to go home seems like a basic courtesy.”

Kelly smiled slightly, and I could see her fangs poking out of her mouth. She was enjoying this far too much. “Ah, but you did not intend to bring me home. You did, however, intend to trespass. To steal back more trespassers, in fact.”

“They were kidnapped, not trespassing.”

“Are you sure about that?” she asked with a smirk. She turned to one of the lesser vampires lining the hall. “Kiara, I believe? Please tell me what happened when you encountered the angel and the changeling at Avernus.”

The girl looked hesitant, and bit her lip—a bad idea, considering her fangs. “We, uh, we tried to talk to them. And they attacked us. I think it might be on video, maybe, but I’m not sure if they—”

“That’s quite enough, dear, thank you,” Kelly interrupted with a surprising amount of warmth. Kiara seemed to agree; she looked like she didn’t know how to react to a Belian Noble being nice.

I tapped Laura on the shoulder. She looked me in the eye, frowning, before she understood what I was trying to say. She nodded and turned back to Kelly. “What do you want for them?” she asked evenly.

Them?” the newborn… reborn Noble laughed. “You are my prisoners just as much as the angel and the giant, dear children.” She leaned forward, that fur cloak of hers not quite slipping off her shoulders. “I have plans for you, and you still have not given me a good reason to release you.”

There was a click from behind her, and a massive shotgun poked her in the ear.

“I’ve got one,” Adam said levelly, his mouth set into a grim line that matched his eyes. “You should have hidden my guns farther away. Now let everyone go, and you get to keep your stupid kingdom of slaves.”

Kelly didn’t seemed perturbed by the Necessarian Saint George—almost certainly loaded with a god slayer—pointed at her skull. “Oh, you clever little psychopath. You are good. I didn’t even notice you move.”

“Sociopath, technically,” was his only response.

Some shadow of the old Corporal Sanguinas returned as she shrugged. “Well, those two terms have become so muddled over the years that it’s hard to tell when and where they apply. The medical community doesn’t even use them anymore, they’ve become too diluted—”

One of the Nobles, the one with a soft and gentle face sharply at odds with his power and position, cleared his throat. His boss turned to him with a frown, and he gave her a look I couldn’t interpret.

She definitely understood it, though, as she sighed and turned her attention back to Laura. “I tire of this game. Honored Paragon, you may leave with your lover and your pet murderer.” It took me a second to realize the ‘lover’ part referred to me; I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment, but wisely kept my mouth shut. “The angel, the giant, the changeling, and the kemo all stay with me.”

“And what of Akane?” Laura demanded, eyes narrow. “Gaziel said she was under guard in your hospital. What will happen to her?”

Kelly waved her hand blithely. “What do I care? It’s too much effort to go collect her. She stays.”

Laura’s hand went to her necklace, but she managed to remain calm. “She is the magister of the kensei. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? The samurai warriors with super speed? Some are already calling her kenkami.”

“Sword-god,” Kelly translated with a chuckle. “Cute. But what of it?”

“If you don’t release her, they will come for you,” Laura said.

“And if you don’t release the others, we will come back,” I added, stepping up next to Laura.

I heard a crack from Kelly’s direction. Someone had handed her a glass of wine at some point, a deceptively delicate goblet that was actually a thick and durable chunk of carved crystal, designed for warlords. She had still managed to put a large crack in it, from which black wine was now leaking.

Another slave stepped up and replaced the damaged glass with a new, full one. Kelly took it without a word, her narrow black nighteyes focused solely on me.

“Derek Huntsman,” she said quietly, her voice low and dangerous like the first rumblings of an earthquake. “You are an annoying one, aren’t you? How is it, Honored Paragon, that you manage to find all sorts of warlords and future magisters by just stumbling through life? How is it that a random boy from South Central manages to attract the attention of Elizabeth Greene herself?”

It seemed best not to answer.

She sniffed. “No matter. However you do it, you do have a surprising number of allies. Even if the Cripple doesn’t side with you, there are many others who would.” She made a face. “I might even have to talk with Dracul again… ugh.”

Laura and I remained silent. Adam’s Saint George remained level, though I knew he’d be straining to keep it that way. If Kelly decided to act like a Belian after all, to attack without thought of the consequences, Adam likely wouldn’t be able to kill her.

But she didn’t.

“Gazra,” she ordered. “Fetch Ogrémoch, tell him to check on the kenkami’s progress. If she’s well enough to leave, allow her to. If not, throw her out. She is no longer welcome in Phlegethos.”

The pretty-faced vampire from earlier bowed low and left.

“Everyone else, out. Everyone except for our guests.” The two remaining Nobles stepped quickly, walking down the aisle past the still-startled nightstalkers, but the rest were more hesitant. Kelly waved her hand impatiently. “Everyone. That includes the sclavi. OUT!”

This last was a sudden shout loud enough to hurt my ears, and enough to make the rest of the vampires hop to action, fleeing from the royal audience chamber as fast as their legs would carry them.

Once they were gone and the thick concrete doors closed behind them, the Noble pointed at poor George, still nailed to the wall. “I suggest someone help the giant down. His buffs are impressive, but that must still be painful.”

‘The giant.’ Not George or even ‘the ogre.’ She was still acting like Fierna.

But we had little choice. Jarasax and I—the changeling had been faking unconsciousness for most of the conversation—stepped over to the wall and started pulling stakes out of George’s limbs, carefully removing him from his position, spread-eagled on the wall like some grisly trophy.

It took both of us to catch him, and even then he was too heavy for us to keep upright. It was more like we kept him from dropping too quickly. He still fell to his knees, but at least slow enough that they didn’t crack on the hard concrete floor.

He was definitely in a lot of pain, but Kelly was right. He was made of stern stuff, and his wounds weren’t bleeding as much as they should. He couldn’t fight, but he should be able to walk out of here with help. Adam came over to help, apparently realizing he wasn’t doing much good covering the warlord.

“Is that silly angel still crying?” Kelly asked in a bored drawl.

I turned to see Alex, still curled on the floor in the fetal position, silently weeping. Laura ran her hand through his hair, whispering something that didn’t seem to have any effect. Wincing, she turned to the throne. “Yes. I’m not sure why. He might be in shock.”

“Bah,” Kelly said with a wave of her hand. “He just wants a fight. I’ll kick him around a few times and he’ll leave.”

I blinked. How did she come to that conclusion? This was the problem with dealing with drug-addled minds. “What? No! You can’t do that!”

“I’m doing him a favor.”

“No, I mean—”

She nodded thoughtfully. “You’re right. Duels shouldn’t have witnesses. Leave.”

I tried to step forward, ready to pound something like sense into her, but George collapsed again the second I let him go. Cursing, I glanced between the giant and the angel, before Laura sidled up beside me.

“We can come back,” she whispered. “Try and talk her down. But George needs to be moved.”

Frustrated but not seeing another choice, I nodded. I slipped under George’s arm again, the three of us pulling his massive bulk towards the doors, which Laura opened as we reached them. She was careful not to close them all the way behind us, leaving them open just a crack.

We put George down on a table we found maybe ten or twenty yards down the tapestry-lined corridor, and left Adam and Jarasax to tend to him. Laura and I returned to the royal audience chamber to save Alex. Laura peeked through the crack in the door… before waving me over, motioning me to silence.

What I saw was not what I expected.

Alex sat up on the floor just a few feet from the door, with Kelly in front of him, carefully wiping the long tracks of moisture from his ivory cheeks.

“Fi,” the angel whispered, new tears welling up already. “C’mon, don’t… don’t do this… ”

The vampire smiled sadly, all traces of her previous arrogance and apathy gone. “It is done.”

“Then… I’ll stay! I’ll stay with you! I can—I can—”

She interrupted him with a gentle kiss on the forehead. “Don’t you dare,” she said, her voice quiet and filled with barely restrained tears. “You know how much effort Mom went to in order to keep you out of Dad’s clutches. Don’t throw that all away now.”

“But you’re—”

Kelly placed a finger on his lips, still smiling that sad smile. “No. I am a vampire, and you are an angel. That is the end of our story, dear heart.” Tears started to well up in her own eyes, but she blinked them away. “But—but I would like to hear it.”

Alex frowned, not even bothering to hide the tears running down his cheeks again. “H-hear what?”

“My name,” she whispered. “My real name. The one Mom gave me.” She was blinking rapidly, trying and failing to keep the tears from coming. “You’re the last one alive who knows it, and I just want to—”

Now it was the angel’s turn to comfort the vampire. He pulled her close in an embrace. “Shh… shh, it’s all right. I promise, everything is going to be all right.”

Then he whispered something in her ear, too quietly for the rest of us to hear.

Kelly laughed, a sorrowful giggle full of heartbreak, and hugged the angel closer. “Thank you, Alex.” Then she smiled. “I mean… Ilarion Marinov.”

Alex laughed, sniffing away his tears. “You know I’ve always hated that name.”

“I know Ill, I know.”

The vampire and the angel touched their foreheads together, crying softly and quietly.

I glanced at Laura, giving her a questioning look. She looked almost as uncomfortable as I felt, but still gave me a glare. The message was clear: Just be quiet and give them their space.

“I need you to be strong, little one,” Kelly said, not moving her forehead from Alex’s own. “Stronger even than your days at the orphanage.”

Alex cried some more, but managed a smile. “The orphanage wasn’t so bad, you know?”

“I know Ill, I know.” She closed her eyes. “But this… this will be.” She took a deep breath. “They’ll be coming for you soon. You and anyone else associated with me. All four of you need to be pull together and protect each other, but they’ll be looking to you for help.”

“Sax—”

“Sax is not a leader, and has no interest in becoming one. If you let him lead, he’ll just follow whatever his mother tells him to do. You have to take over, little one. You can’t come to me, asking for help. Not this time.”

Alex nodded. “The angels will be coming after you. Once we fight off the vampires, I can talk to them. Zaphkiel can—”

“Oh, dear heart,” she said quietly, not opening her eyes. “The angels will be coming after you, too.”

Alex stared in mute horror, before nodding slowly. “I… I suppose you’re right.” He closed his eyes. “They won’t be able to do anything overt, but Pistis Sophia will send her best. Her Initiates at least, and maybe even Drusulai himself.” He blinked back tears again. “But you will have to deal with Raziel, and almost certainly Evansheer.”

“Don’t worry about me,” she said, finally opening her eyes again. Tears were streaming down her cheeks now as well, but she ignored them. “I’ll be fine. Zaebos and Zapan have done their jobs too well. We have many, many sclavi to use in a fight. Once I let them study my toys a little, we may even be able to gives the slaves back their sanity.”

“But Fi—”

She didn’t let him even start. “But that is all my problem,” she said firmly, her marble-black eyes strong. “This is my culture, Honored Daybreaker. My inheritance, the only gift I ever received from that bastard father. I will deal with it. Alone.”

“You know you don’t have to.”

“Yes. I do.” She kissed his forehead again. “Stick close to Huntsman and Medina. Those two are going to do good work.” She looked him up and down. “Are you strong enough? I don’t want this to kill you.”

He dried his tears and nodded. “Ready and waiting, Noble Fierna.”

She shook her head. “I hate that name.” She sighed and stood. “Incoming.”

I pulled Laura out of the way a split second before Alex was thrown through the doors, slamming them open with a boom and crashing into the back wall like a cannon.

Kelly—no, Fierna—strode out of the throne room, eyes wild, laughing with mad bloodlust. “Is that all the angels of Necessarius have to offer? I’ve fought dumpster dogs with more spirit in them!”

Her voice echoed in the concrete corridor, and at the far end I could see several nightstalkers and their sclavi watching the fight with interest. George, Adam, and Jarasax seemed to have gotten out of the way already.

The Noble strode up to the angel, picked him up casually with one hand, and tossed him a dozen yards down the corridor, where he skidded to a stop at the feet of the other vampires. “This one is boring. Send him away with the others.”

Her minions moved quickly to obey, picking the broken angel up roughly and hauling him down a corridor I knew led to the front doors of the domain. Fierna gave one last barking laugh at the sight, then turned back to her throne room.

And froze at the sight of us, standing silently next to the double doors.

Several emotions warred on her face. Surprise, rage, disgust…

Before finally settling on something like resignation.

She patted me on the shoulder. “Take care of him, Honored Paragon,” she whispered. She kept her face neutral. “Consider it an official request—from one warlord to another.”

I nodded, once.

She nodded in turn. “Thank you.” Her grip on my shoulder tightened, and then she flung me down the corridor as well, hard enough to fly almost to the corner. It was a dangerous throw, and if I had hit a wall it could have killed me, but she was careful. Landing hurt, but I was good at taking falls.

“Take your boyfriend and leave, baseline!” Fierna yelled at Laura as she stalked back towards her throne. “I have better things to do with my time than play with newborn warlords with over-inflated egos!”

Behind the scenes (scene 262)

I’m honestly surprised this came out as well as it did, but I like it.

This isn’t quite the end of Kelly’s arc, but we’re definitely past the climax.

Scene 261 – Quod Primogenita Vendidisset

QUOD PRIMOGENITA VENDIDISSET

FIERNA

I am Fierna.

I am power.

For years, I shackled myself. Begged that cripple who thought himself a warlord to chain me, to weaken and hobble me. For years, that damned device cursed me, held me back, denied me what was mine by right.

Even now, I could feel it. Years of poison did not fade in moments. But oh… it was fading. Burning away like ice before a flame. With every moment, my power grew. With every moment, what was mine slowly returned.

I was thrown roughly against the cold stone floor.

“My sclavi found this one with the others,” a female voice said.

“She looks like a ghoul worked her over. Did she resist?”

“No. The sclavi were simply not careful when they carried her here.”

Old instincts were surfacing, like a blade slowly being sharpened after disuse. For the moment, I merely peered around myself, trying to determine where I was. At the moment, my strength was not fully returned, and it was all I could do.

But my blood was quickening. My power would come to me soon enough.

There were many shivering sclavi, standing barefoot on the cold concrete floor, guarding the entrances and simply acting as servants for the well-dressed vampires scattered around. There were several baselines, bound together in chains. They were unconscious, and irrelevant. There was a giant, pinned to the wall with spikes. Also irrelevant.

And there was an angel, staring at me with wide eyes from his spot on the floor just a few feet away. He was mouthing words, but what, I couldn’t say. I peered closer, trying to divine his meaning, but had little luck.

He seemed to be saying ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Oh good, the baselines are waking up.”

“What do we do with the vampire?”

“We’ll get to her in a moment.”

Strong hands grabbed me and dragged me to the rear of the room, where I could be stored until they were done with whatever minor thing they were doing.

“You there, baseline. What’s your name? What made you think attacking Phlegethos was a good idea?”

Phlegethos. I knew that name. The Heart of Darkness, the Seat of Despair. Sitting in Northwest Middle, it was the last spark of power of an old, dying culture, waiting for a lord that was dead and gone.

I knew Phlegethos. I knew it.

I had recovered enough to crack open my eyes and get a better look around the room. The floor was cold concrete, but the walls were lined with tapestries and paintings. There were a few lights in the ceiling, barely more than dying candles, dim enough to give baselines the vaguest impression of what was happening, but bright as day to vampire eyes.

The room itself was wide and long, large enough to park five or ten cars. It was clearly an audience chamber, a gesture of the ruler’s might and abilities. The effect was undercut by the fact that the throne at the end of the blood-red carpet was empty.

Four vampires sat on short chairs flanking that throne, a massive chair-shaped edifice of blackest obsidian. All four were distinct in their suspicious lack of distinction; they all had ivory skin and raven-black hair, fitting the vampire definition of beauty. They would have more unique toys hidden under those loose robes of theirs.

There were a scattering of other vampires in the room, in addition to the dozens of sclavi. The slaves, of course, were mostly dull-eyed with the drugs used to keep them under control, but the nightstalkers were sharp and dangerous.

“I am Derek Huntsman, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” a strong male voice called out. “And this man next to me is Adam Anders.”

The effect of the baseline’s words was electric. All the nightstalkers recoiled away from the blond man standing before them with his hands bound, and even more when his bland little friend struggled to his feet as well.

I felt like I should know who these two were. It was tickling at the back of my mind, but the power stirring in my body made it hard to think. Nights, it made it hard to do anything but just revel in my own strength. Why had I ever given this up? Why had I ever thought that would be a good idea?

Everyone in the audience chamber was staring at the blond and his friend, ignoring everyone else in the room, including the other two baselines still on the ground.

Everyone, that is, except for the angel. He was still mouthing words at me, now with tears dripping down his cheeks. ‘Please.’ Please what?

“Huntsman,” one of the Nobles flanking the throne, Bathym, hissed as he leaned forward, his black talons hidden in his robes. “It is… unfortunate that you are here. But the laws of Necessarius are clear. You broke into our domain. They will not rescue you from our wrath.”

“You kidnapped several ‘sarians. They will demand compensation for that.”

Bathym grinned in that annoying way he had, showing his fangs poking over his lower lip, but nothing else. “That is too bad, Huntsman. But the Belians remain a rich culture. We have more than enough money to pay retribution for a self-defense case.”

The baseline shrugged. “Perhaps. I guess we’ll just have to fight our way out of here.”

Bathym laughed loudly at that, though no one else so much as cracked a smile. “Oh, you are a confident one, Honored Paragon. But we are hardly helpless.” His black eyes turned hard. “We know what you are capable of. You are vastly outnumbered, and your clay is unarmed. Not to mention you must keep your friends safe. You are not getting out of this alive. You have no trump card.”

“Well, there is me.”

My power had not returned to me. Not completely. It would take hours, perhaps even days, before all traces of that vile chemical was purged from my system.

But I did not need physical power to deal with these wretches.

“Go back to sleep, nightstalker,” Balan, the warlord with the massive eyebrows and the tufted beard, said wearily. “You will be dealt with in a moment.”

I ignored him, and instead took off my clothes.

It wasn’t hard. My armor was missing—most likely taken—and the underclothes were ripped and torn in places. A single hard yank was enough to remove my shirt, and my pants weren’t much more difficult.

Everyone in the room stared at me. Not in lust, either. Just in sheer confusion.

“…someone get this girl out of here,” Gaziel said, waving his hand lazily in such a way that the bulbous, bony joints of his wrists were seen under his robe, and I could see the hint of his long, purple-red forked tongue in his mouth. “Sclavi. Scoateți-o.”

Instead of following his orders, one of the sclavi quietly stepped up from behind me, dressing me in a long, fur-lined cloak that went right over my naked body. There was no tie around the waist, but it was expertly tailored to my physique, and carefully clung to my body to hide both my breasts and groin.

I smiled. “Sclavi. Îngenuncheze.”

And the slaves knelt before me.

Now the Nobles and nightstalkers jumped back in fright, understanding exactly what they were dealing with. No, not yet. I saw the looks in their eyes—they were afraid of my power to control their sclavi, but they didn’t understand why.

They didn’t recognize me yet.

I strode through the rows of kneeling vampires, past the crying angel still on the floor, ignoring the baselines who were staring at me, as well as the Belians who had no idea what was going on.

I strode towards the obsidian throne, with no one to stop me.

Slowly, ever so slowly, Gazra looked from me to the throne.

Then he knelt.

Balan and Bathym followed suit a moment later, and Gaziel, looking between his three colleagues, knew he had no other choice but to do the same. I noted his hesitation, but kept my lips shut for the moment.

I turned to see the confused faces of the rest of the vampires, the nightstalkers who had joined after I had left. They saw what their Nobles were doing, but couldn’t believe it, couldn’t understand it. They had no more idea what was happening than the baselines we had captured or the giant stapled to the wall.

The angel knew, though. He was still crying, still begging me to stop.

Oh, dear, sweet Alex. You knew this was how it was going to end.

“…Kelly?” Derek asked slowly. “What—”

“Drakela Sanguinas never existed,” I explained, as if to a child. “She was a broken mask worn to interact with others.” I met the Paragon’s wary gaze with a firm one of my own, knowing full well what I was doing.

“I am Fierna,” I said calmly. “Daughter of Belial, heir to the Throne of Abriymoch, the Fourth Black Crypt Phlegethos, and all the secrets of my mother, Naome the Golden.”

I sat in the throne, the black obsidian seat too large for me—it had been designed for my father, after all, who was almost eight feet tall.

“I claim this culture by right of blood and right of shadow,” I said, my voice echoing throughout the chamber. “Let all who wish to take it from me come forth now, so that I may defend what is mine.”

The power in my veins sang. It felt good to be home

The only problem was my conscience screaming in the back of my skull.

Behind the Scenes (scene 261)

I’ve been waiting for this one for a very, very long time. Still not sure if I should move it to later.