Tag Archives: Yolanda McDowell

Scene 311 – Scobis

SCOBIS

SIMON

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

So that meant shifting rubble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The incubus shrugged and resumed working.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Next time?” I said with a frown.

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

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

Yolanda didn’t look convinced.

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

“That would probably just make things worse.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shrugged. Fair enough.

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

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

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

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

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

I was silent for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She quirked her head. “Is that right?”

“Yeah, a lot of vampires have—”

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought it was the other way around.”

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

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

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

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

“Three times,” she said.

I frowned. “Are you sure?”

“Yes. Veda was a cherve, remember?”

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

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

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

“And spying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 311)

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

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

Scene 281 – Furor Inferorum

FUROR INFERORUM

YOLANDA

My name is Yolanda McDowell. Daughter of the so-called ‘Loony Lovers,’ niece of Senator Evangel Athanasius Kane McDowell. Succubus of the Mahathallah clan, follower of Agrat Bat Mahlat. I’m dating a nice boy who was broken by the toy maker, and am going to school at Akamatsu University. Sometimes it felt like I was the only one still bothering to show up for class.

And now, little old me was stuck in the middle of the battle for Demon’s Gate.

I hadn’t planned it this way. Everyone in the city knew the Americans were coming, and it was obvious that they would strike at the Gates. Where else would they attack? But unfortunately, the ruins of Shendilavri—the ruins under which modern succubi had hidden their domains—were just a stone’s throw from South Gate.

I didn’t want to be here. I had no combat skills but some stupidly-designed guns left to her by my insane parents.

I was wrong.

“Hands above your head,” the man said. He was definitely American. He had a few patches on his camo-uniform indicating that he was a sergeant. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

As I raised my hands, I found myself looking over his gun, trying to identify the model. It wasn’t a gun we got in Domina, but I still recognized a high-caliber military assault rifle when I saw one. Any demon fiend with up to date bullet resistance buffs would have a hard time surviving a burst from a gun like that. I, of course, didn’t have any bullet resistance buffs, so it would chew through me like tissue paper.

Another American, this one a lieutenant, stepped forward. He picked up the gun I had dropped on the ground and looked over it. “What’s this?” When I didn’t answer, he frowned. “I asked you a question.”

There wasn’t much fire in his voice, but I still flinched. I wasn’t good with confrontation. “’s a gun, sir.”

“I can see it’s a gun. What kind is it? I’ve never seen one like it.”

“…’s a McDowell gun, sir.”

“All right, fine. Nothing important. We’ll—”

“Nothing important?” I demanded, all shyness forgotten in the face of simple stubborn familial pride. “That is a McDowell MD91/5.0 ‘Snake Eyes-Shooter,’ a two-round 5.00 mm revolver. It was intended as a sniper’s pistol, and while no one knows what the Hells that means, it has found use as an excellent hold-out weapon. If I hadn’t been holding it when you found me, you’d never know I had it until I put a bullet in your skull! And while the width of the chambers are only enough to accommodate 5.00 mm caliber bullets, the length is larger than necessary, allowing for custom-made bullets that are longer than normal. Bullets with extra powder are common, as are shrapnel rounds and even exotic darts or battery bullets.”

The lieutenant, the sergeant, and the six privates all stared.

“I also have an MD90/3.0 ‘Pocket Sniper’ in my back pocket, and while I can’t get it out before you shoot me, it has also become a staple of the city’s arsenal due to its impressive concealment capabilities! It isn’t strong enough to beat even the weakest bullet resistance, but assassins who use it on a regular basis are known as ‘eye poppers’ due to their penchant for shooting their targets right through the eyes!”

The grunts circled around me, slowly, to keep an eye on me from all angles.

“And then of course there is the MD90/200.0 ‘Anti-Infantry Grenade!’ A shaped explosive strong enough to breach tank armor, it was, as the name suggests, originally intended as a weapon for use by infantry against other infantry! The shaped charge means that I could blow you up at this distance without so much as ruffling my clothing, sir!”

The lieutenant took a step back. “And you… have one of these on you?”

“No, sir!”

“No? Then why—”

A succubus walked up, completely naked.

“Hello boys,” she said, eyes twinkling with passion. “Would you like to help me out with something?”

The soldiers were completely and utterly gobsmacked. It’s hard to do anything when confronted with a naked succubus—a creature with a body as perfect as the toy maker can make it—and not just take a minute to stare.

The fact that she was pumping out enough pheromones to make a gay man straight didn’t hurt, either.

I knew to keep my eyes away from her. The pheromones were tugging at the edge of my brain, whispering all sorts of little promises that made me blush, but I kept my head. I was in a position to see when three more demons slipped out of the shadows. They came up behind the soldiers, slitting their throats before anyone even knew they were there.

I felt the pheromones cut off, and I took a deep breath of clean air while trying not to look at the corpses on the ground. “Thanks, girls.”

The naked succubus accepted a robe from one of the others. “No thanks necessary. It is the duty of all Daybringers to aid any succubus or incubus who may be in trouble. Besides, you did a good job distracting them.”

I shrugged awkwardly. “Honestly, I was just upset about what he said about my guns.”

“Ah, yes.” She bent down to pick up the fallen Snake Eyes-Shooter. It was inches away from the pool of blood expanding from the lieutenant’s body. “You’re that McDowell. I always forget. Still, good job regardless. Are you ready to come back to the domain?”

I nodded. “I don’t think I’ll survive much longer out here alone.”

She cocked her head, listening to the sound of gunfire on the air. “It seems like they haven’t quite reached Shendilavri yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“Are there troops defending it?”

She chuckled. “Of course not. That would just make it obvious that it was something worth defending. The hope is that people will just avoid it.” She shrugged. “The demons will, at least, but I don’t know about the hired Gravers.”

“I just want to get home. My boyfriend is down there, I need to make sure he’s safe.”

“I’m sure he’s fine. Shendilavri is a haven—”

“He’s not an incubus.”

“Oh.” She grinned. “In that case, I’m definitely sure he’s fine. Left alone with a thousand succubi… assuming his heart doesn’t pop from sheer pleasure, he’ll be right as rain by the time you get down there.”

I blushed, and all the Daybringers laughed. “He won’t… they won’t…”

The leader clapped me on the back. “Relax, kid. They won’t actually steal your boy-toy.” She sobered. “Especially at a time like this. They’ve got more important things to worry about.”

I stepped around the corpses of the soldiers, making sure not to look down. “Can we get going, then? I don’t want to stay out here longer than necessary.” There was an explosion from the direction of South Gate. “I really don’t want to stay.”

“I think that was Keller,” she said, not quite paying attention to me. “He always did like explosions. Hopefully he pointed it at those stupid echoes of theirs.” She noticed the look on my face, and smiled. “It should distract everyone long enough for us to get back. Come on.”

They headed out, and I followed, surrounded on all sides by Daybringers. Rather than focusing on what they were protecting me from, I tried to distract myself with their guns.

The leader—I still hadn’t caught her name—had a Crisis 08091945, named after the Nagasaki bombing. It was a 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun. It was overpowered against infantry, but it would get the job done.

Another had a Hiroshima Crisis, the 08061945. That was a 10-gauge single-barreled shotgun, with a good amount more stopping power. I had no idea what we could face that could need that amount of firepower. Maybe if there were any crazy warlords running around, that might be able to drive them off. Depended on what kind of ammo she had loaded.

The other two both had Hellion guns. Good and reliable, if a little boring. They sacrificed raw damage in favor of accuracy and magazine size. It took me a second to identify them as the 93-061 Assault, an improvement on the 93-060. There was a manufacturing flaw in the 060, a minor quirk in the barrel that reduced accuracy and range. The Hellions had released the fix within two weeks.

All their guns had suppressors, good ‘sarian made ones with the digital status indicator on the side. They couldn’t eliminate sound completely, but they were the best on the market. With the amount of ambient noise from the war right now, they were as close to perfect silencers as you could get.

Odd choices, all around. Soldiers usually preferred to have the same caliber so that they could swap ammo. The ones with the Hellions could do that, but the Crises couldn’t. It just seemed like a stupid risk to take, especially since we weren’t fighting anything that required heavy firepower. We could most likely all survive just by using the naked distraction trick a couple more times.

“How did you get grabbed, anyway?” the leader, the one with the 12-gauge, asked as we walked for a few minutes. “It’s not like these guys have a whole lot of patrols out this far. The Erlking is holding them pretty well at Demonia.”

Demonia was one of the more formal names for South Gate. I had never liked it. Sounded too pretentious. Better than North Gate, though—some people called it Kemoia, and that was just silly.

“I think they were scouts. Or deserters, maybe. Anyway, I was running, and they found me. Then they saw my gun, and they freaked out. I don’t think I would have been able to keep them from shooting me for long. They’ve got it into their heads that anyone who uses the toy maker is the enemy.”

12-gauge spat on the ground. “Blame Soaring Eagle for that. She had their president’s ear for a while. Long enough to tell him all sorts of sweet little lies.”

“You think she’s still out there?” I asked.

“I heard she died,” one of the girls with the 93-061 Assaults said. “Isn’t that the reason for this invasion? Or his excuse, anyway. Straw that broke the camel’s back or whatever?”

12-gauge smiled. “I don’t know about that last part, but yeah, word is she’s dead. I heard it from some of my informants who work at some of the companies that talk with America. Rumor has it that it’s a Dominite that killed her, but then of course they’d say that.”

“Might be true,” 10-gauge said.

“Not by Butler’s order. And not any other warlord, either. Who would be that stupid?”

“The fey,” everyone said at once.

Everyone except me. “I don’t think they’d do this.” I blushed when they looked at me.

12-gauge nodded. “She’s right. We’ve all met Titania. She’s a little harsh, but not enough to start a war with America. I doubt the other fey are much different.”

“Have you met any?” one of the girls asked me.

I shook my head. “Just Titania.”

The other Assault girl cocked her head. “Oh! You’re Scarboy’s girl, aren’t you?”

“…please don’t call him that.”

“Right, sorry.” She smiled. “Thought I’d recognized you. Yeah, you spent a lot of time with the Matron. You agree with the boss? Not crazy enough to assassinate a wayward bird for no good reason?”

I thought about it. Would Titania do that? She had no connection to Soaring Eagle, other than the fact that the kemo had stolen a toy box. A toy box that the fey had already sold, and had no claim on. She wasn’t prone to revenge or flights of fancy anyway, and had been building up a reputation as a doctor. It would have been one of the Winter fey who did it. But no, it wouldn’t have been them either.

“Not flashy enough,” I said finally.

Everyone remained silent to consider this.

“Fair enough,” 12-gauge said finally. “We would have heard about a horde of monsters or people with wings or whatever. The fact that we didn’t means this was probably just a quiet knife in the dark. That’s not their style.”

“Might have been us, actually,” 10-gauge said, a little eagerly. “I heard that Soaring Eagle was actually—”

“Enough,” 12-gauge snapped. She glared at the other woman. She relented when her withering gaze caused her target to, well, wither. “Enough,” she said, more softly. “These are just rumors. We don’t need anyone spreading them around.”

The two girls with the Assaults leaned forward. They didn’t say anything, in case the other two remembered they were still there. Succubi liked gossip, and the Daybringers thrived off it.

“It’s not just a rumor,” 10-gauge said, a little petulantly. “I overheard Naamah talking to Agrat Bat Mahlat and Eisheth Zenunim. They were definitely talking about Soaring Eagle when they said that—”

Enough,” 12-gauge said, firmer this time. “Not in front of the others.”

All three of us deflated a bit when 10-gauge frowned at us. Whatever secret connection Soaring Eagle had to the succubi, we weren’t going to discover it today. She was probably just a secret lover of someone important. That happened a lot, for obvious reasons.

“Come on,” 12-gauge said. “One of the secret entrances isn’t far. We’ll be back underground before you know it.”

No one else spoke, but I knew everyone could tell that there seemed to be more gunfire than there was a few minutes ago. And we were headed straight towards it.

Behind the scenes (scene 281)

Yolanda is an interesting character to write for due to her shyness combined with her love for guns. I need more chances for her to shine.

Scene 206 – Rector

RECTOR

SIMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the lights in the street went on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek Huntsman, with Akane Akiyama right behind him.

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

But her reaction dashed that hope instantly.

Huntsman.”

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

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

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

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

But I couldn’t move.

I had to watch this.

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

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

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

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

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

And then Akane was there.

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

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

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

“ROBYN!” Derek called.

And then Robyn Joan Clarke dropped out of the sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it distracted him.

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

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

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

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

The demon had other plans.

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

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

The gazelle rarely wins the fight against the lion.

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

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

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

Her way was blocked by monsters.

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

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

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

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

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

A name I recognized.

“GILLESPIE!”

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

No, it couldn’t—

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

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

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

And Steve…

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

But he had a power.

And he had answered the Composer’s call.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who fell apart, cut diagonally in half.

What?

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

He blocked it.

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

Wait.

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

Wait one second here.

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

This wasn’t—

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

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

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

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

That explained a lot.

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 206)

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

Scene 202 – Abscondens

ABSCONDENS

SIMON

This was a bad idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Seena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pam snorted. “Subtle subject change.”

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

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

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

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

Leon perked up. “Candy?”

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

“These are kids,” Laura noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the others?” Akane asked quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the table was staring, too.

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

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

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

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

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

Behind them were their monsters.

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

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

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

The fey woman grinned at us.

“The Wild Hunt has begun.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 202)

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

Scene 187 – Occultatio

OCCULTATIO

SIMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

Still.

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

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

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

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

“You look fine—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you even meet Laura?”

“No, but you guys have mentioned her.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glared. “What’s wrong with Pam?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hmph,” I grunted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yep,” Yolanda confirmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um, you did. Just now.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My heart stopped in my chest.

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

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

“But…I…”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 187)

This came out better than I expected.

Scene 173 – Pax

PAX

SIMON

For the first time in two days, I was up and walking again. My vision had cleared up yesterday, but my legs had taken a little longer. I probably could have moved if I had to, but Titania had insisted I take my time.

The Seelie Queen popped in every once in a while to see how I was doing, but I never got a chance to talk to her at length. Like to figure out why the fey reformatted into a culture, or took names, or started wearing clothes or any of that. I mean, I guess it had something to do with the Composer, but you could never be sure with the fey.

Yolanda said the fey had always been involved with the succubi, from the very beginning, which wasn’t very surprising. The fey liked putting their hands in everything, and they represented exactly the kind of non-restrictive, chaotic existence that demons in general, and succubi in particular, loved.

Now, I was wandering around with Yolanda, holding her hand tightly as though she would disappear at any moment.

I still wasn’t sure what to make of this place. It was under the ruins of Shendilavri, built in the cracked and destroyed sewer system, scarred by both Necessarian bombs and the rubble from the massive building itself. They had done a lot in five years, digging down so that the ceiling was fifty or sixty feet above our heads.

The new buildings, scattered around the cavern like mushrooms, were primitive and small, mostly made of mud-packed rubble or dug into the cave walls. There were still signs of technology and advancement, though. Wires strung haphazardly, televisions in windows and speakers on every street corner…that sort of thing.

Yolanda squeezed my hand—causing by scars to ache again—and smiled at me. “What are you thinking about?”

I smiled back. “Just…this place.” I indicated the bustling underground settlement, only half-lit from a scattering of cheap light bulbs on sticks acting as pseudo-streetlights, with a wave of my free arm. “How did you manage to hide all this for so long?”

She chuckled. “You make it sound like we’ve been discovered! You’re hardly the first to find your way here.” Then she shrugged. “Part of it is solidarity. You don’t become a succubus these days if you’re willing to sell out your friends.”

“Yeah,” I mused. “Racism does strengthen the bonds of the oppressed.”

“But that’s only a small part of it,” she admitted. “Mostly, it’s due to Naamah and her Daybringers.”

“I haven’t heard of—wait.” I frowned. “Actually…actually, I have heard of Naamah. She was an angel, right? Under Pistis Sophia, if I’m not mistaken.”

“The first fallen angel. She caused quite a stir when she left them. And this was in the early days, when Malcanthet was still running around free.”

I nodded. “Definitely remember her now. I guess she didn’t escape with the Queen, then?”

Yolanda winced. “Please…don’t call Malcanthet that. No one likes her. Anyone who did, left with her five years ago.”

I patted her head lightly. “Sorry, sorry. Just…what was that about Daybringers?”

She sighed. “They’re spies. That’s really all there is to it.”

“Oh, I get it. Spread rumors about how unstable this place is, how there’s nothing good to loot, and keep an eye out for the ones who ignore the warnings and get too close.”

“Yeah, pretty much. Bribe the guys in the ruins up top, that kind of thing.”

“And…what happens to the people who get too close?”

“Look at that, we’re here,” she said, running forward the last dozen feet to our destination. “Come on, hurry up!”

I sighed. I could guess why she didn’t want to talk about it. “Yeah, one sec.” I limped forward faster, wincing as each and every scar on my legs started protesting at me.

‘Here,’ it turned out, was just a small cluster of white tents with a single black rune stitched on the side, looking sort of like a ‘v’ with a tail. Although I couldn’t read it, I recognized it from angelic script. That would make it…Yiddish? No, angels used Hebrew.

“What is this place?”

I felt a strong hand on my shoulder. “A hospital. Sit down.”

I was guided to a cot inside one of the tents, where Yolanda was already waiting. When I sat down, I was able to get a good look at the woman who had led me here.

The first thing I noticed was that she was naked.
I shielded my eyes. “Um, is there any chance you can put some clothes on?”

The woman cursed. “Velvet hell, you’ve been in Shendilavri for two days, and you still care about nudity?” She had a tough, no-nonsense voice, and I winced as though she was about to smack me.

But she just sighed.

“Fine, whatever.” I heard the sound of clothes rustling. “There, I put on a lab coat. Happy now?”

I cracked my eyes open to see that she had done as she had said, and was buttoning up the white coat even now.

She was a beautiful demon with dark skin mimicking an ethnicity I couldn’t quite put my finger on, as well as long and delicate horns maybe six inches long sprouting from her forehead. While her face was as beautiful as that of any other succubus, my trained eye noted that it was a little too beautiful. Whoever had shaped it had made the mistake of making it literally flawless, which would have landed her square in the Uncanny Valley. Ironically, it was her persistent frown that saved her, placing unexpected wrinkles and creases on that perfect face, serving to humanize her a bit.

As she finished buttoning up the lab coat, she pulled a small plastic spike from somewhere and put her long black hair into a bun to keep it out of the way.

“Let’s have a look at those legs,” she declared. “Off with the pants.”

I blinked. “Uh, what?”

Without saying another word, she reached for my belt, causing me to yelp and scramble back. She sighed.

“Look boy, I really don’t care what you’ve got under the hood. I just need to see how your legs are healing. Now take them off, or I’ll do it for you. I’m not afraid to hit you with a sedative strong enough to knock out a gargant.”

Knowing I didn’t really have a choice, I removed my pants, wincing as the jeans slid over my scars. I left my boxers on, which the succubus didn’t seem to mind. She just started poking at my legs with a long fingernail.

I hissed. “That hurts.”

“You’re just a big baby.” She stretched out my leg a bit and eyed it critically. “Hm, seems to be healing all right. But still, there’s only so much we can do without tossing you back in the box.”

My heart skipped a beat. “You’re putting me back in the toy box?”

“No,” she said instantly, and my heart fell again. “It’s Titania’s box, and she’s made it clear she’s not letting you within a hundred feet of the thing.”

“…oh,” I muttered. “Yeah, she mentioned that, but I thought she might have…changed her mind or something, I don’t know.”

“She’s not known for changing her mind.”

I looked down at the succubus curiously. “She’s a fey.”

She raised an eyebrow at me briefly before turning back to poking at my legs. “Clearly, you haven’t been paying attention recently. Now that they’re a culture, the fey have done a complete one-eighty. They’re not all flirty and inconsistent any more.”

“Well, on the surface, no one has seen them in…” I thought about it. “I don’t know how long. A few days, since the Winter Princess or whatever you call her blew up a homunculus at some guys. I don’t know, I’ve been out of contact.”

“Unseelie. Or Princess of Wind and Frost, if you prefer.”

“I’ll go with ‘Unseelie.’”

“Yeah, I thought you might.” She dusted off her hands and stood. “Well, no surprises here. Everything seems to be going all right, but those scars aren’t going away any time soon.”

I felt my shoulders slump. “I…see.”

Yolanda placed her hand on my head, and I looked up to see her smiling at me. “You’re alive, and you’re walking. That’s all that matters.”

I found myself smiling back, even though I still felt cold and empty. The ugliness was part of it, but only a small part. The fact that it wasn’t an appearance I had chosen, but one that had been forced upon me, was a bigger part, but that still wasn’t the extent of it.

I could feel them. Every time my clothes shifted, every time the wind rushed over my skin…I could feel my scars, little tight knots of flesh tugging at me, gnawing at the back of my mind.

Maybe I’d get used to it. It had only been two days, after all.

But I could always feel them. If I was going to get used to it, wouldn’t it have gotten at least a little bit better already?

The succubus doctor didn’t seem to care. “Anyway, come back tomorrow and I’ll be able to get a better idea of your progress.”

“Knight Zenunim?” A young incubus poked his head into the tent, then blushed when he saw us. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were with a patient.”

“It’s all right, I’m done here. What’s wrong?”

“That ghoul with the shivers is back.”

“Velvet hell…I told him he needs to fix his buff…” she sighed. “I’ll be right there.” The incubus nodded and left.

“Wait,” I said as I pulled on my pants—slowly, as to try not to strain my scars. “’Knight?’ You’re a Power?”

She gave me a sideways look. “Hm? Yes, didn’t I mention that?”

“Uh…no. Definitely not.”

“Well, I’m Knight Eisheth Zenunim, Power of the Zen succubus House. Any other questions?”

“Well, actually—”

“Ask your girlfriend. I’m busy.” She left without so much as a goodbye.

I turned to Yolanda helplessly.

She shrugged. “We have subcultures too.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Okay, give me the five minute summary.”

“There are basically four succubus Houses.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “The Daybringers, the Mahathallah, the Riven, and the Zens. They follow Naamah of the Dawn, Agrat Bat Mahlat, Malcanthet, and Eisheth Zenunim the Healer, respectively.”

“Wait, people still follow—”

“Let me finish. The Daybringers are spies, as I mentioned. The Mahathallah are the bulk of the culture; that’s the House I’m a member of, for the record. Agrat Bat Mahlat broke off before Malcanthet got really crazy. The Riven are supposed to be the ones who follow Malcanthet willingly, but, you know…” she shrugged. “With her, free will gets a little bit hard to pin down.”

“But people still follow her.”

“Not out in the open, but there are still a few sects here and there. Anyway, the Zens are healers, as you might have guessed.” She waved her hand, indicating the tent we were in. “They’re in charge of the hospitals and so on.”

“Okay.” I was sure there was lots more she could tell me, but this was enough for now. Every culture had their own history of civil wars, peace treaties, and betrayals, and if I was going to be living here for any length of time, I’d have to know it, but this was a start.

Speaking of living here, I still wasn’t sure how long I’d be doing that. My vanity wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t returned to the surface. If Nhang found out I was still alive, that wouldn’t last long.

Of course, I wouldn’t be in too much danger, probably. Unlike most subcultures, the sibriex had very little loyalty towards our warlord. He wasn’t even a warlord, really, just the guy who owned the ‘scraper we lived in. Once I assured him I wouldn’t try and seek retribution, he’d probably just ignore me.

But still…I wasn’t ready to return. Not quite yet.

“C’mon,” Yolanda said with a smile, as she grabbed my hand again. “There’s a sandwich shop nearby you’ll love.”

I smiled back.

Why did I want to return to the surface, again? It seemed like all I wanted was right here.

Behind the Scenes (scene 173)

Haven’t quite decided if the other succubus warlords are going to become directly involved in the plot. Eisheth is a bit of a special case, because Simon is a bit of a special patient. Anyway, we’ll see.

Scene 144 – Mutata

MUTATA

ECCRETIA

My name is not Pam.

I am not from a small orphanage in South-West Outer, which conveniently burned down a few years ago.

I am not a college student with too much rage and not enough power.

I am not an unremarkable baseline no one would look twice at.

I won’t say I didn’t enjoy playing the role. For six months and ten days, I got to be a normal kid. No life or death decisions, no dealing with Necessarius or the cultures. Just a bit of light hacking and physical training to keep my skills up, while I took a relaxing vacation.

But I had put off my return for far too long.

I am Eccretia, of the Never-Known Thieves. Along with Meldiniktine of the Forgotten Names and Feless of the Firstborn, I am one of the first three changelings to escape from the fey, thirteen years ago. I founded the Never-Known Thieves, and through them the White Hat changelings.

Recently, with the rise of Butler’s Paladins, I’ve been called the warlord of the changelings, which I suppose is accurate, but still feels strange.

But the thing about warlords is this:

Even if you order your followers to leave you alone, even if you threaten them with excommunication and death, they will always make sure you are protected.

The Princess sighed and rolled her eyes at my defiance. “That’s great and all, but can you get out of my way? I don’t have time to deal with one little girl right now.”

I smiled thinly. “I am a changeling, Honorless Maiden. I am never alone.”

Then a sniper shot Maeve in the head.

I recognized the sound of the gunshot, echoing around the street. It had the distinctive stuttering bark of a White Knight ZF090, which came from the way the firing chamber was built. It was a good, reliable 5.5 millimeter rifle made by Zero Forge Guns. It was known for its extended magazine and hardy construction, which even allowed for it be used as a melee weapon in a pinch without damaging it. Some people even added blades to facilitate this.

What it was not known for was its stopping power.

“Aaaah,” the fey whined, rubbing her skull as if she had just gotten smacked by a fist, not a mid-powered rifle. She was bleeding, but not much, and I could already see the blood clotting. “What was that for? Ugh, now I’ve got blood on my dress…”

“Domothon!” I called. There was only one of my men who used a White Knight above all else. “The eyes!”

My subordinate answered immediately with four more pinpoint shots, a pair aimed at each of the Maiden’s eyes. That was the true strength of the ZF090. The massive magazine, coupled with a greatly reduced recoil, turned it into something almost like a rapid fire sniper rifle.

But the fey was prepared now.

She moved so fast I couldn’t even see a blur. One second she was there, then she wasn’t, and there were a few new holes in the concrete.

Then I felt an arm wrap around my neck from behind like a steel vise.

Maeve giggled into my ear. “It has been a while, hasn’t it, Eccretia?” She sighed mournfully. “I remember the good old days, when you would try to kill me personally, instead of ordering your red shirts to do it for you.” I could feel her pouting. “Now you’ve gone and gotten him killed!”

My heart skipped a beat, and I drove an elbow into her ribs. I’m not sure she even noticed. “Bitch, if you touch him—”

Her arms tightened around my throat, cutting me off mid-sentence. “Really, dear, where did you found that mouth? It wasn’t from me, that’s for sure.” The fey giggled. “Oh, that’s right, dear Isaac was the one who remodeled you! Maybe he made a mistake somewhere along the line, hm? Gave you a sailor’s tongue on accident?” She cackled gleefully.

This was getting ridiculous. Thankfully, the Maiden didn’t see me as a threat—the fey never treated changelings seriously. So I was able to unholster my pistol without too much difficulty, and shoot the homunculus in the foot.

She wined, loosening her grip long enough for me to slip away. Not that she cared. She seemed more concerned with her bleeding foot. Not actually in any pain, mind. Just mildly annoyed.

I had dropped my gun, and couldn’t find it anywhere. Dammit, she’d counterattack any second…and why wasn’t Domothon shooting? She didn’t have a hostage now.

Paying more attention, I realized that she had dodged out of his line of fire without me even noticing. He was probably repositioning himself right now, but that would take time we didn’t have.

“Now you’ve made me angry,” the black-clothed fey pouted. “My pets are after him now. Really, dear, couldn’t you have just left well enough alone?”

“No. She couldn’t.”

I turned, surprised to find that Yolanda was the person behind that iron voice. She had finally found her gun, and was still sitting on the street with it.

Maeve sighed, the giggly mask slipping. “Miss McDowell, please don’t make me kill you. I was actually hoping to be able to recruit you today. I realize that is probably off the table, but there is no reason we cannot part amicably.”

“Stay out of this, demon,” I ordered. “The fey are a changeling problem.”

“The fey are everyone’s problem,” the girl retorted. But despite her bold words, she still hadn’t actually raised the weapon.

The fey in question smiled at her a little sadly. “Shooting me isn’t going to solve anything at all. It won’t even mildly inconvenience me; I’ve made my offer, recruits will find me whether in this body or the next.”

Yolanda finally raised her gun, slowly, making a great deal of effort to hold it steady with both hands. I immediately recognized it as a MD92/14.5, one of the most powerful handguns on the market. So powerful that no one actually bothered to use it.

It was a McDowell gun.

“I just have one question before I shoot you,” Yolanda McDowell managed, with only the slightest quaver in her voice. “My parents died eight years ago, when their warehouse exploded. Was that caused by the fey?”

Maeve looked at her for a good, long minute.

Yolanda clicked back the hammer on the gun, readying to fire.

“No,” the fey said finally. “I honestly don’t know why you would think otherwise. None of us ever had any quarrel with those two.”

Yolanda smiled, and lowered her gun. “Yeah, that’s what I thought. I always knew those idiots just managed to blow themselves up. Mom probably didn’t think twice about smoking in an ammo warehouse.” The demon’s eyes turned hard, and she raised her gun again. “Thanks. That’s all I need.”

She fired. The roar of the gun almost managed to cover up the sound of both her wrists snapping.

The bullet struck Veda in the shoulder, shattering the bone like glass and creating a fist-sized hole in her flesh. The cherve screamed and stumbled to the ground, but the momentum from her desperate charge made her slide across the broken street, grinding dirt and glass into her skin until she stopped at the fey’s feet.

“Veda?!” I cried. “What the hell are you doing?!” Yolanda, for her part, was curled up in a ball around her gun. I would be surprised if she was still conscious.

Simon slid over to his girlfriend, while Seena rushed towards the fallen cherve, only half a step behind me.

But we were both forced to stop as the fey interposed herself between us and our target.

She giggled.

“I like you,” Maeve chirped at Veda, still lying on the ground, barely breathing. “Sacrificing yourself to save a homunculus? Fantastic!” She squatted down next to her, smiling broadly. “I take it you want something, right? Perhaps you want me to help the murid?”

Our fallen friend coughed. She was still conscious? Gods of men and darkness, what was she made of?

“Y-yes,” she managed, blood spurting from her lips. Probably a few internal injuries from when she landed. “But I also…”

“You want something else, too?” The woman pouted. “Now that’s just greedy.”

“I want to join you.”

I…she…what?

The fey blinked, and the giggly mask slipped. “Wait, what?”

“I…want…”

She put a finger to the cherve’s lips, stopping her, and patted her head. “That’s enough, dear. I know it hurts. And I accept.”

Maeve, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie fey, bent down and kissed Veda full on the lips.

I recognized the tactic. The fey occasionally secrete chemicals in their mouths for just this sort of situation. The one she was using right now was probably some sort of painkiller, or maybe just a simple knockout drug.

I could have stopped her. Tackled her to the ground, or something. Yeah, the fey was about a hundred times stronger than me, but still…

I should have done something.

I couldn’t react, even when the fey lifted Veda up in her arms in a gentle princess carry, then tied her securely onto a pack mule monster that I hadn’t even noticed walk up.

“This brave young girl will become the first of the new fey!” Maeve announced to the much-reduced crowd. I couldn’t bring myself to turn and see their reactions, but I could hear their uneasy murmuring. “By her own choice, she will gain power and prestige in the Unseelie Court!”

What the hell was I supposed to do in this situation? I wasn’t even armed, since I had dropped my gun when I scrambled out of the fey’s grip. I was a changeling, a master of deceit, not combat. I couldn’t go head to head with a thrice-damned homunculus.

“You put her down!” Yolanda cried. Next to her, Simon raised a gun—not the massive MD92/14.5, the simpler MD91/6.0 revolver. Still pretty big, but not to the same ridiculous extent as the first. Its most notable feature was a ridiculous twenty-six round cylinder. It looked like a damn hubcap.

He fired, but it didn’t do any good. He wasn’t much of a marksman, but that wasn’t really the problem. Even though the bullet managed to smack the fey in the shoulder, it didn’t do anything worse than draw a bit of blood.

The Princess grinned, rushed forward, and backhanded the purple demon with the sound of a cracking whip. He fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes, clutching his face.

“I think that’s enough, don’t you?” Maeve said jovially. Her giggly mask was back up; she was grinning like a loon. “Just let me heal your friends, alright?”

No one seemed able to muster the courage to object as the fey lifted up Delphie carefully and tied her to a beast next to Veda’s. The murid wasn’t making any noise, but she had to be okay…

No one moved as Maeve kissed Delphie, likely to spread the same numbing agent she had used on the the cherve.

But when she started to lead the beasts away, I managed to act.

I found my gun.

“Eccretia, please,” the fey said chidingly, as if speaking to a small child. “Hasn’t there been enough violence today?”

I didn’t lower the pistol. It wasn’t very high-powered. Certainly not at the same level as either of the McDowell guns that Yolanda or Simon had used. But it was powerful enough, and I was a good shot. A bullet through the eye should do the trick.

The Princess looked over the curved, streamlined gun in my hands carefully. “A Necessarian Saint Jude…a good weapon. Fitting, don’t you think?” She grinned. “The patron saint of lost causes. Perfect for a changeling.”

“Make sure you tell anyone stupid enough to join you,” I retorted. “That by siding with the fey, they’re at war with the changelings.”

Then I shot her.

She tried to dodge, but I was ready for that. The fey don’t place any real value on their homunculi, so they tend to charge head-first into danger. My first round missed, but the next one caught her as she ran forward and punched through her left eye just as intended.

The Maiden stumbled and fell as the hot chunk of lead bounced around inside her skull, destroying the delicate cybernetics the fey used to control the body. The corpse slid to a halt just a few feet away from my combat boots. It started to give off an acrid stench moments later; that would be the self-destruct sequence, making sure there was nothing left for enemies to salvage.

The street was completely silent. No one said a word.

I looked around at my friends and all the random bystanders, wondering whether they were more shocked at witnessing the death of a fey, or the fact that a changeling was the one who had done it.

Eh, didn’t matter. I stepped over the steaming corpse to rescue my friends—

Wait. Where were Veda and Delphie? The beasts they had been secured to were here just a few seconds ago. The girls weren’t conscious, and even if they were, I doubt they would know how to give the monsters commands…

Maeve. Damn, stupid fey. Usually, in situations like this, killing the fey would leave their nearby monsters acting on whatever their last orders were. If they were rampaging through a store, they’d continue rampaging through a store. If they were waiting for further instructions, they’d continue waiting.

Should have known that the rules were different now. If the fey could give themselves names, they could plan ahead a little better. Clearly, she had given one last order to the monsters while I was distracted.

“Domothon!” I called. “Where’d the pack beasts go?”

My old subordinate poked his head out of an open window three or four stories up on the nearest ‘scraper. “North, ma’am!”

“Then take Ferenil and follow them!”

He nearly tripped over himself, trying to pack up his sniper nest at top speed. “Yes, ma’am! Sorry, ma’am!”

I shook my head and sighed. Gods damned…

I pulled out my phone and hit speed dial 9. He picked up on the second ring. “Hello?”

“It’s Eccretia. I need a squad at Kagurazaka Street, near Carne Sandwiches.”

He did a brief double-take. “Wait, you’re…uh, right. Of course. That’s Nervi’s place, right?”

“No, her son’s.”

“That’s what I meant. Anyway, we’ll be there in a few minutes. What’s the occasion?”

“Fey attack. The aftermath, anyway.”

“Gods of…any special party favors we need to bring along?”

I looked around the devastated street, at the red-tinged crater Jelena left behind, at the people who had been stomped on or otherwise injured trying to flee from the gargants or the fey herself.

“An ambulance.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 144)

One might wonder why Maeve’s head wound didn’t bleed more. After all, unless her skin is bulletproof (it isn’t), then it should have caused at least a shallow injury, and head wounds bleed a lot.

The thing is, head wounds bleed a lot because of all the blood feeding oxygen to the brain. Homunculi don’t have brains. True, the device the fey uses to control the body remotely is centered in the skull, but blood is an ineffective coolant, so the fey don’t use it. A homunculus’ head doesn’t have any more blood than any other part of their body—less, actually, since there isn’t anything up there that needs more than a little oxygen.