Tag Archives: Zusa Pham

Scene 142 – Novum Die

NOVUM DIE

DELPHIE

“This is my nephew, Leon,” I explained, patting the small boy sitting next to me on the head. “Say hello, Leon.”

“Hello,” he muttered. He was ten years old, and actually looked it, unlike a lot of kids these days. He also looked baseline, but as the son of the murid warlord, I doubted that was completely true. I had never seen his toy receipt, but then my sister had always been quite secretive.

“I’m sorry about your mother,” Yolanda said gently, while leaning against Simon’s arm. “I know it’s hard.”

He shrugged noncommittally.

I frowned, but didn’t say anything. It had been just a little over a week since his mother died. I could let him be anti-social for a while longer.

“Is your dad still around?” Eric, the green-haired baseline we had saved from the iron-lord gargant, pressed. “Do you have anywhere to go?”

Leon shook his head again.

“His dad died a while back,” I explained apologetically. “He’s staying at the domain for now.”

Eric nodded in sympathy. “Yeah, that’s rough.”

This guy was getting a little too close. I barely even knew him; Seena and Jelena had gotten some seaweed rum from his Dagonite roommate, and then Seena started inviting him places. Maybe she was trying to get in his pants or something; damned if I knew what that vampire was thinking. She had been acting weirder than normal since around when the Composer was captured.

Speaking of Seena, she elbowed her friend in the ribs half-heartedly. “Don’t be mean.”

Green-hair seemed genuinely confused. “How was that mean?”

“You’re mocking him!”

“What!? How is that mocking?”

“Both your parents are alive.”

Everybody started a little at that. It was pretty rare to see anyone like that. I think the only person our age I knew with two living parents was…

Um…

Oh, Derek’s friend Robyn. Doctor Isaac Clarke’s daughter. Living under the wing of Artemis Butler increased your life expectancy significantly.

Eric, for his part, had the good grace to look embarrassed. At least he knew better than to complain how annoying his parents were while surrounded by orphans.

He shifted in his seat. “My parents are close advisers to Arthur Curry. So…you know…they’re pretty well protected.”

Leon looked confused, and I couldn’t blame him. That name didn’t sound familiar…

“Wait,” Jelena said after a minute of silence. “You’re a Dagonite?

Veda cocked her head quizzically at the Glasyan vampire. “We weren’t supposed to know? His roommate’s one, I thought it was obvious.”

“He does use Dagonite curses,” Pam pointed out.

Eric shook his head. “Salt and spear—” Then he stopped when he realized what he was saying. “Ah…I mean…God dammit.” He shook his head again. “I spent three years unlearning Dagonite curses, and then by pure dumb luck, I ended up with Conway as my roommate.”

“Why?”

Eric seemed surprised Leon had finally said something, but shrugged and answered. “Whoever was in charge of room assignments probably did it on purpose. It’s usually a good idea to put people of the same culture together. Keeps fights to a minimum.”

“No, I mean why try to unlearn Dagonite curses?” The little murid twiddled his thumbs. “I mean…people go to a lot of trouble to learn them in the first place.”

Eric smiled a little sadly. “People…do not always stay with their culture.”

Jelena nodded. “My culture gets a lot of requests to quietly remove toys. It’s more common than you’d think.”

That caught my attention a little. I turned back to Eric. “So you’re an actual ex-Dagonite?” I had assumed his buffs were just internal, like mine.

“Well, yes, except I was never a Dagonite in the first place.”

Simon’s eyes widened. “A Rahab?”

Eric scowled. “No! Why does everyone always assume that?” He waved his hand impatiently. “Enough about me! Someone else talk.”

There was a pretty long pause.

“Steve is getting out of the hospital soon,” Simon noted.

That surprised everyone, but Pam got the words out first. “He is? When did he wake up?”

“A few days ago.”

The plain little baseline leaned forward eagerly. “Did he get a good look at his attacker? The one who killed Kevin?”

Simon shook his head sadly. “He went down in one hit, apparently. Never knew what was happening.”

Yolanda, of all people, gave her boyfriend a quizzical look. “Didn’t he get hit in the face? How could he not see anything?”

“Well, he saw the bat they hit him with, and that’s about it.”

Pam leaned back in her chair, almost bumping into the table behind her. The people there glared at her, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m still mad about that. Kevin was fun. Steve is just boring. Why couldn’t it have been the other way around?”

Seena pushed her in the arm, nearly toppling the baseline. “Don’t say stuff like that. How would you feel if you survived, and someone said that about you?”

“I wouldn’t care. I know I’m boring.”

Her midnight-skinned roommate sighed. “Not what I meant.”

Simon shrugged. “Besides, Steve is more interesting anyway.”

Yolanda took her head off his shoulder long enough to punch him in the side.

“Ow! What?”

His sister nodded. “Thanks, Yolanda. And she’s right. Don’t be a dick.”

Our dirty red-haired baseline, however, seemed to take the question more seriously. “Steve’s just an errand boy. Watching Kevin play around was a lot more fun.”

The sibriex rubbed his side, eying his girlfriend warily before turning his attention back to Pam. “I considered him a friend, and he was a good roommate, but I wouldn’t call him fun.”

“I just thought it was hilarious,” she insisted. “Watching his ham-handed attempts at espionage.”

Simon blinked. “Wait, what?”

“He was a passer. A spy for the Jotuun. Didn’t you know?”

What?” Everyone shouted at once.

“No, that’s impossible,” I insisted. Fur and fang, I had liked him. “Even ignoring the fact that he was like four feet tall—”

She snorted derisively. “You don’t really expect a Jotuun passer to have the Bigger package, do you?”

“—there’s no way he could be a giant. I met friends from his old orphanage. It was deep in orc territory, so if he’s a passer for anyone—”

“Faked,” Pam said in a bored tone while examining her nails. “Rather amateurishly, too. They paid off a couple kids to pretend to know him. It’s much easier to just say the old orphanage burned down and everyone died.”

I rubbed my forehead. “No. Just…no way. He’s definitely an ex-demon. He knows way too much about their cultures to just be a random—”

“He’s a spy. Of course he knows a lot about the other cultures. Also, he doesn’t use demon curses, which isn’t very suspicious on its own, I’ll admit—”

Jelena perked up. “Oh, right! Back at that thing with the iron lord gargant, he used Jotuun curses. I thought it was weird.”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Not as weird as knowing the location of a secret Nif outpost. that’s what confirmed it for me.”

“WHY—” Simon took a deep breath to calm down. “Why didn’t you mention any of this?”

The baseline shrugged. “Like I said, I thought you knew. Besides, it’s not like it really mattered. Most of the stuff he would be searching for you told him.”

“Like what?”

“Like the monster guarding the sibriex servers.”

I blinked. “Wait, I didn’t hear about this.”

Zusa finally spoke up. “Yeah, me neither.”

That’s it. Nothing more. She had been acting odd recently; normally she would chatter on for an hour while everyone else tried to get a word in edgewise. But ever since a week or so before school started, she had been really weird.

No one else seemed to think it was odd, though.

Simon waved his hand. “That was…I mean…”

“What ever happened with that, anyway?” Pam asked. “I don’t think you ever said.”

“Zusa and I still don’t know what it is.”

Simon ignored me. “Well, I never did manage to get in touch with MC, and once the Composer outed herself, it kind of became moot.”

“Oh, Aramazd was going to actually talk to her?” A warm and gentle voice said from behind me. “That’s really sweet.”

We all turned to the source, standing just a foot behind me. She was a tall, pale-skinned woman with boyishly short black hair and a flat chest. She wore an elegant dress—a stunning black gown with a wide skirt, no sleeves, and black silk gloves that stretched to her elbows. The entire outfit sparkled with a few conservatively-placed white gemstones, which twinkled like stars.

While we were all caught off guard by the sudden appearance of a beautiful woman with a dazzling smile, I managed to recover first. “What?”

Okay, maybe ‘recover’ is a strong word.

The woman…or girl? Her age was a bit hard to place. She raised a hand to her mouth and giggled. “Sorry. It’s just that Aramazd has always been so paranoid. The fact that he’s willing to put his own fears behind his desire to protect the city is really heartwarming.”

No one seemed to know how to respond to that.

Pam had an idea, at least. She pointed her gun at the woman’s heart. “Who are you?”

“And how do you know anything about Aramazd?” Simon added. “I never told anyone his name.”

The girl backed up a step, but she seemed more appalled at her lack of manners than the gun. “Oh! I’m so sorry. I forgot to introduce myself.” She shook her head and sighed. “My sisters and I went to all this trouble to set this up, and I fumbled it.”

I looked around, not seeing anyone other than a hundred or so people watching on the street, who seemed about as bewildered as those of us actually sitting at the cafe, listening to the woman talk.

Oh, and I saw my stupid nephew leering at her. I needed to have a talk with him, but now was not the time.

“Just talk,” Pam ordered, her gun not quavering in the slightest. There was, however, a confused frown on her face. “I know you from somewhere…”

The black-dressed woman grinned broadly. “Both of my sisters are setting up in other spots in the city.” The smile faded. “Unfortunately, my stupid cousins are probably doing the same…”

Simon stood up, pulling Yolanda with him, and started backing away. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t care. Everyone, we need to go.”

Everyone else seemed to agree, and rose to follow. Many of the other customers followed suit, walking off in every direction. Even the maintenance man installing a speaker on the corner seemed inclined to finish his business and leave as fast as possible. I grabbed Leon and dragged him behind me. I glanced back at the woman…

Only to see Pam, still sitting there with her gun pointed at her.

“I know you…”

Again, the woman didn’t seem very concerned about the gun. She seemed more upset that she was losing her audience.

“Don’t go!” she cried. “It’s not time yet!”

I scoffed. Whatever. Just some attention whore in a nice dress.

Since I wasn’t looking where I was going, I ran smack into a gargant.

I scrambled back from the beast and got a better look. It was a flesh-eater gargant, one of a trio blocking the street to keep us from passing. The beasts weren’t particularly large—more like really big dogs—but they were exceedingly dangerous. They had shark-like maws with countless razor-edged teeth, ready to tear through muscle and bone like tissue paper.

A properly buffed individual has nothing to fear from a flesh-eater. It doesn’t take more than a couple skin enhancement buffs to make their teeth more annoying than harmful, and while they were fast, they would go down in a few good hits.

None of the people here had those kind of buffs. Oh, maybe there were a few with the strength and reflex toys necessary to fight, but the lesser skin enhancements can be identified at a glance, and of the hundred or more people trapped between the gargants (there was another trio at the other end of the street), it was obvious no one had anything useful.

The gargants growled at us, forcing us to back away, but didn’t attack.

We—almost everyone at once—turned to the woman in the black dress, still standing at the cafe, ignoring the gun with a huge smile on her face.

She curtsied, first at my group, then at those on trapped at the other end of the street. “My name is Maeve,” she said cheerfully. “Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie fey.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 142)

Eric’s explanation of people learning new verbal tics is actually something that happens in real life, albeit more rarely. It takes a lot of effort, but you can change your own curses and catch phrases. Most people just don’t care enough to do so. It’s like unlearning an accent, really.

Extra update Wednesday. Not because this one (or the next one) is short; they just work much, much better closer together.

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Scene 101 – Caelo Cecidisse

CAELO CECIDISSE

DELPHIE

“So,” I said bluntly. “Heaven has fallen.”

“Just the one,” Pam grunted.

“And it will be back up soon,” Yolanda added insistently. “It’s only been…six hours? Six hours or so, and they’ve already started rebuilding. The Draculas and the ‘sarians were able to take care of everything.”

Pam chuckled darkly. “Vampires helping rebuild a Heaven. Never thought I’d see the day.”

I scratched behind the ears of the mouse cradled in my lap. “Well, I’m sorry that I think one-seventh of the angels being dead or screaming is worth worrying about. Clearly I’m just overreacting.”

“It’s not that bad,” Zusa cut in. “I mean, most of the Chronians got away, right?”

Seena snorted. “Does it matter?”

Simon rubbed his forehead, between the horns. “Nine Hells sis, not you too…”

The Mal threw up her hands. “What? They assassinated my boss, and I’m not allowed to be a little pissed at them?”

“He wasn’t your boss yet,” I noted absently. I really didn’t want to get dragged into another rehash of the Twilight War. At least there weren’t any angels around, so it probably wouldn’t get physically violent.

“He was one of the better men in the city, and he got killed for no better reason than because he’s nocturnal.”

Veda quirked her head. “He was also the warlord of the Mals. He was an assassin, dearest. Maybe a moral one, but he definitely wasn’t innocent.”

Seena sipped her coffee. “Yeah, yeah. That’s what everyone says.”

“Probably ’cause it’s true.”

“Shove off, Headlights,” Jelena muttered. “A lot of people at this table have lost friends to angels.”

Zusa frowned. “That doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate the cycle of hatred. People are dead. Can’t we just call it a tragedy and ignore everything else?”

“Maybe once vamps stop getting killed in the street.” She shook her head. “Seriously, I think if I saw the Composer today I’d give him a medal.”

Yolanda glanced between the two, concerned. “You guys usually don’t get involved. What up?”

“There was an attack when I was still being held by the fey,” Jelena explained. “Mostly hit the Belians, but also the daevas and the ghouls.” She took another swig of coffee. “The cute Akoman I had my eye on got killed by some glowling you hadn’t even earned his knives.”

Pam spoke up. “You were gonna date a daeva?”

“Maybe,” the Glasyan muttered. “Never gonna know now.”

Something tugged at my subconscious, and I sniffed, trusting my enhanced olfactory senses to explain the situation. They didn’t disappoint.

I reached forward—careful not to dislodge the mouse in my lap—grabbed Jelena’s ‘coffee’ and sniffed it. “Fur and fang, what the hell is this?” It was clearly alcohol, but not of a kind I had ever seen.

Jelena snatched it back, spilling a little in the process. I swear the table started to sizzle where the liquid hit. “It’s just rum, Mom. No big deal.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve smelled rum before, and—”

Seena hiccuped. “Seaweed rum. Got some as a thank-you gift from that Dagonite we rescued last week. Eric.”

I shivered. Just remembering the events of seven days ago made my heart race, and not in the good way. Caught between two gargants was not the way I expected to go.

Of course, thinking about my friends drinking seaweed rum wasn’t really helping my nerves any. “Ah…tell me you guys at least watered that down with something.”

Seena nodded sagely. “Yes. Rum.”

“Whelp, I guess I know what I’m getting you for Christmas,” Simon said bitterly. “I’ll pay to repair your alcohol-induced blindness.”

His sister winced, but still took another swig. “It’s not that bad…”

The sibriex fixed her with an icy glare. “Yes, it is.”

Yolanda stared at her boyfriend. “…am I missing something here?”

Seena adjusted her daygoggles, annoyed at having to explain. “Our mother was an alcoholic.” She shrugged. “Also, we were born blind. I’m pretty sure that’s unrelated, but I dunno.”

The little blonde demon bit her lip. “So you were blind for the first…” She squinted as she did some quick math in her head. “Three years of your lives?”

“Seven,” Simon corrected. “Toys like that weren’t available right off the bat, you know.”

She blushed. “I-I’m sorry! I didn’t—”

Zusa patted her hand in a friendly manner. “Most of us didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on when we were kids. I’m sure Simon understands.”

The sibriex didn’t say anything.

“I said I’m sure Simon understands.”

He suddenly winced and grabbed his leg under the table. “Ow! Why’d you kick me?”

The Nosferatu just smiled innocently. “Oh, no reason. You’re just being an ass again.”

“What—hey, I was just thinking.” He rubbed his leg, or more specifically his ankle. “This whole thing just reminded me of Jacob.”

“That would be…” I tapped my finger on the table. “I can’t remember. Was he one of the ones in the shootout at the beginning of the semester?”

Simon shook his head. “No, that was David. Jacob died years ago. I don’t think you ever met him.”

“Hm. Who else died in that one? The shootout, I mean? It was in vamp territory, so…”

“Orbek,” Seena noted, sipping at her drink again. Simon frowned and snatched it away from her. She grimaced, but didn’t protest. “I think you remember him. Young orc with fighting claws? Some Levisans snipped them off with bolt cutters. David killed most of them, but…” She shrugged. “All he had was a pistol. He got killed pretty quickly.”

Simon sniffed the drink and winced. “Ugh, Nine Hells, how can you—nevermind. I thought you didn’t know how David died.”

His sister shrugged. “Malach told me.”

Pam blinked. “That’s an angel name.”

It was also a name I recognized. “He’s still sweet on you?”

The vampire assassin shrugged and slumped against the tabletop. Her answer was muffled by her arms. “I guess. He didn’t try and kill me, anyways. He just thought I might want to know how a friend of mine kickstarted the Twilight War.”

“Again,” Jelena deadpanned.

“Again,” Seena corrected, with a small pained smile. “Though the war kinda lost steam with the Composer and everything.”

“I wonder if that was the point?” Pam mused, leaning back in her chair and staring up at the sky. “Everyone’s been wondering about the Composer. None of his actions make sense.” She shrugged. “Maybe he’s trying to be an enemy for us to fight, to unite against.”

“Spare us the Social Darwinism,” Seena grunted. “Over three thousand people are dead. Plus Chronias.”

Pam leaned forward again and shook her head. “No, that’s exactly my point. Only a few hundred people are dead. Three thousand are screaming—and if there’s a cure out there, then suddenly the deaths are barely a blip on the radar.”

Simon closed his eyes. “Pam, you…” he shook his head. “I’ve heard that argument before, but I just don’t buy it. There’s too much chaos and destruction.”

The plain baseline shrugged. “Well, yeah. It wouldn’t be much of a threat if he didn’t do any damage at all. But it’s still less than the angels and vampires would do if they had a chance.”

Yolanda gripped her boyfriend’s arm to get his attention. “You know…my uncle did say they were worried that the next Twilight War would drag the whole city into it. Maybe that’s related?”

“I think you’re all thinking about this too short-term,” Veda said slowly, not looking up from her phone. “Zaphkiel sponsored a lot of orphanages, and he made sure the kids were raised right. No brainwashing them with angelic propaganda, just letting them grow up. Who knows what will happen now, with him out of the picture?”

The mouse in my lap perked his head up, probably hearing something I couldn’t, and leapt off my lap. I ignored it, in favor of pondering the implications of the cherve’s statement. “So you think maybe this had something to do with toppling the Watcher from his position as leader?”

“Erathoal is in charge of education,” Jelena muttered. I was surprised she had been paying attention. “Maybe he wants more propaganda?”

It was a sign of how drunk the vampire was that I had to explain politics to her. “The Arch-Saints don’t fight amongst each other, you know that.” The angels in general were pretty good about keeping out of civil wars, but they weren’t perfect. The Hebdomad, however, were close friends, and had founded the culture together. I couldn’t imagine them turning on each other.

Simon leaned back in his chair, as if exhausted. “Nine Hells, its obvious. Why didn’t I think of it before?”

Other than the drunk girls, we all stared at him skeptically. Think of what?

He shook his head. “Don’t you see? This isn’t about politics or propaganda or whatever. Remember the bats? They spread the fastest, because it was a vampire domain.”

Pam frowned. “Yeah, so?”

“So?” the demon shook his head again. “So this attack was to weaken the angels, the natural enemy of the vampires, and the ones most capable of fighting them. So that when the Composer starts sending them to infect the city, there’s less resistance.” He gripped Yolanda’s hand gently.

I closed my eyes as I figured it out. “He’s preparing for his end game.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 101)

This…could have gone better.

Oh, and the Dagonite just delivered the rum to Seena and Jelena today. It took him a while to find them.

Scene 95 – Solutio

SOLUTIO

JELENA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chastised, he shut his mouth and nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blind-rammer,” Seena supplied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bland baseline shrugged. “I guess so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“A grenade wouldn’t be enough?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now,” I hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t possibly…could I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fired.

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

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

I fired again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 95)

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

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

Scene 94 – Homines et Monstra

HOMINES ET MONSTRA

SEENA

Out of the corner of my eye, I registered my brother protecting his girlfriend with his own body, but I knew I had bigger things to worry about. The gargant’s iron-armored hand was flailing about the store, searching for us, and it was only a matter of time before it found someone.

I dove in the opposite direction of the trembling couple, towards the baseline with the guns, hoping that if nothing else, I could grab one of his weapons and maybe take out one of the iron-lord’s eyes.

For his part, the bland man was doing a much better job than five minutes ago. He seemed to know what he was doing, now that we were in the heat of battle and he didn’t have to think as much.

He ran away from the gargant, heading for the back of the store, and vaulted over the counter separating the main store from the back rooms. He pointed a submachine gun in my direction, and I winced, expecting to get killed by a hail of lead.

When he fired, however, he only hit the giant hand that had been about to crush me. The beast’s iron skin kept it from actually being hurt by the attack, but it definitely gave it pause, and I took the opportunity to scramble to the back as well, tugging the Dagonite and Zusa behind me.

I cursed myself for getting distracted watching the baseline. I should have been paying more attention to my surroundings.

I wasn’t a soldier, as my Mal superiors kept reminding me, but I should have been better than I was. What if an angel burst into a class I was teaching, and the children were hurt because I wasn’t paying attention?

There was another roar from the gargant, and I was yanked back to the present. This was my problem. All the buffs in the world wouldn’t save me if I kept getting distracted.

I scampered over to the baseline. “Hi. I’m Seena. You are?”

He stared at me for a moment before answering. “Adam Anders. A friend of Yolanda’s. And Laura’s, actually.”

“Good. Great.” I jerked my thumb in the direction of the rampaging monster. “She ever tell you how to deal with an iron-lord gargant?”

“No.” He checked an ammo pouch and cursed. “And I don’t have anything with the punch to hurt it. Any better ideas?”

“We just have to exploit its weaknesses.”

The gunman frowned. “Okay…and those are what, exactly?”

There was a muffled boom from the street outside; it sounded like something had exploded. A grenade? No, something bigger.

“Seena,” Adam said, grabbing my arm. “Focus. How do we kill it?”

Jelena slid up next to me, wincing in the light. She had lost her daygoggles at some point; I imagined the constantly shifting daylight as the gargant moved around was torturous. “We really don’t have time to wait. Sooner or later, it’s gonna get bored and find something else to kill.” She glanced at the creature and immediately regretted it, wincing towards the dark rear of the store. “It’s a miracle it’s still here, really.”

“Yeah,” Adam muttered. “A miracle that’s trying to kill us.” He holstered his shotgun, a massive thing that looked like it was designed for use against tanks, but was little use here. “What are those weaknesses you mentioned?”

I thought for a moment before speaking. “If it gets cold enough, it will break itself to pieces.”

He looked thoughtful. “Like ice cold?”

The Dagonite I had dragged along barked out a laugh. “More like liquid nitrogen cold.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “Wonderful. I don’t—” the gargant roared again as its thrashings managed to collapse part of the ceiling on its hand. It wouldn’t actually hurt it, but it gave the others enough time to join us. “I don’t suppose anyone has liquid nitrogen on hand?”

Pam plopped next to me casually, opposite of the spot Simon and Yolanda had chosen, seemingly unconcerned about the amount of danger she was in. “Why should we even bother? Let the gargants run wild.”

Everyone stared at her.

She didn’t seem to care. “Think about it. The monsters—all the monsters—fill a vital role in the city, by melting away weakness in the crucible of battle. Hell, the screamers are the same way. The weak get killed, and the strong—”

Every single gun in the room was suddenly pointed at her face. Including her own; she had left it on the ground next to me, and I snatched it up.

“Stop talking,” I said, speaking for everyone. “Right now.”

The red-haired girl scowled and looked away, muttering something about how we were all sheep.

I lowered her gun slowly and took a deep breath. “Okay, so any chance anyone knows a place nearby that would have something cold enough? Actual liquid nitrogen would be best.”

The green-haired man nodded. “There’s a Niflheim outpost down the street. They probably have something.”

“You moron,” the Dagonite muttered. “There are gargants attacking and you didn’t think to mention that there were frost giants nearby?”

The man shrugged uncomfortably. “Yeah. I’m not even supposed to know about it. What’s the big deal? I didn’t realize they could help until now.”

“No use crying over spilled milk,” Adam declared, checking his submachine gun. “If these guys are anything like an ogre I know, they’ll have lots more than just liquid nitrogen on hand. We just need to get there fast enough so that there’s something left to save.”

My brother finally spoke up. “We can’t all go. Some of us need to keep the iron-lord distracted.”

“I’ll go,” Veda said instantly. “I have some friends in the Nifs. I might be able to help.”

“And me, obviously,” Adam added.

I nodded. “I’ll go too, in case we need nighteyes. That should be enough.”

“Me too,” Jelena volunteered.

“No!” nearly everyone shouted at once. Well, not Adam, the Dagonite, or the green-haired baseline, but everyone else.

The Glasyan glanced around. “What the hell? Why not?”

Adam, bless his crazy little heart, managed to come up with a plausible lie before awkward silence fell. “Because if they have some lights to knock out vampires, this way we’ll only need to carry one back instead of two.” He shrugged. “Of course, you can still come if you want, but we’ll probably end up leaving you there.”

Jelena seemed to accept that. Good thing, too; we couldn’t have the fey watching through her eyes at a time like this.

“We should hurry,” Veda muttered, glancing at the gargant in our path. “It’s gonna pry the roof off sooner or later.”

Adam nodded. “Agreed. Everyone else, hide deeper in the store. There’s probably a back exit you can escape through if things get really bad. Let’s go. Uh…” he paused. “Green-hair—”

“My name is Eric.”

Adam didn’t miss a beat. “You’re right behind me. Stay close. The kemo and Seena are next. Everyone good?” We nodded. “Good, let’s go.”

The baseline led the way, keeping his gun trained on the gargant’s searching hand like a pro. The rest of us followed a bit hesitantly. After all, Veda didn’t have any weapons, and myself and our green-haired new friend only had pistols.

Getting out was easier than I expected. Avoiding the hand wasn’t too hard, and the shattered storefront meant we didn’t have to use one small exit. We just had to slip out the corner when the beast wasn’t looking.

The second we were outside, Eric pointed down the street in the direction the iron-lord had come from, and we set off. Behind us, our friends were still keeping the big metal ape occupied, and farther back the blind-rammer was still rooting around for something or other.

In front of us turned out to be a bigger problem. Although the street was empty of pedestrians, all of them having fled in the face of the fey’s monsters, they had left behind haphazardly-parked cars and a few burning wrecks. It would be impossible to get through it all quickly.

“Always the same,” Adam muttered under his breath. “One day I’ll find a disaster where everyone has parked carefully out of the way.”

I raised an eyebrow under my daygoggles. “Seen a lot of monster attacks recently?”

He ignored me. “We need to head to the rooftops. It will be faster that way.”

Our new friend Eric blanched. “I—I’m not good with heights. There’s an alley we can—”

Veda snorted impressively. Although it didn’t look like it from the outside, her nostrils were enhanced to give her sense of smell a boost, so when she wanted to, she could make a lot of noise. “Use the alleys, when there are fey around? C’mon, you know they’ll have monsters swarming down there. I’m with the baseline. Let’s go up.”

The green-haired man looked around nervously. “Maybe I could just tell you the way, and you could—”

But I had had enough of this. People were dying. Acrophobia was the least of our problems right now. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him towards the closest ‘scraper built with kemo’s handholds. This was kemo territory, so most of them were built to make climbing as easy as possible.

None of us had claws, of course, but we would be able to scramble up pretty easily. Each handhold was a few inches deep and wide; more than enough.

As Adam holstered his guns, I clambered up, going as fast as I could while still being careful. Which was actually pretty fast, despite my inexperience. The handholds made it only a little bit harder than using a ladder.

Even with Eric protesting the entire way up, it didn’t take more than ten minutes to go up thirty floors. Adam scanned the empty roof quickly, then nodded.

“Good. I was half expecting an ambush. Eric, which way?”

But the green-haired man was laying near the edge of the roof, gasping. He couldn’t hear us.

Veda’s furry ears twitched. “You know, maybe it wasn’t the best of ideas to drag him up here…”

“Well, too late now,” Adam noted. He grabbed the man by his disheveled collar. “Up and at ’em, buddy. Which way is the outpost?”

Our poor guide raised a trembling arm, pointing farther away from the rampaging gargants. As if on a signal, there was a great roar from behind us; I turned to see the iron-lord thrashing in a cloud of dust as more of the ‘scraper our friends were hiding in collapsed.

“We don’t have much time,” I warned. “We need to go now.”

“One second,” Adam promised. “Eric, what’s the address of the outpost?”

“Th-three seven two one. Should be the second-to-last building on this side of the street. The entire ‘scraper is theirs.”

The armed baseline patted him on the shoulder. “That’s all we need. Stay put, we’ll be back soon.”

If Eric responded, we didn’t hear it. Adam bounded off in the indicated direction, and it was all Veda and I could do to keep up. Not bad for a baseline.

If this wasn’t kemo territory, our rooftop flight would have been significantly slower. However, for most of their subcultures running on roofs was only slightly less common than running along the streets, so most buildings were designed to accommodate that. Zip lines, simple bridges…all sorts of nifty little things sped us on our way.

Besides, we didn’t have all that far to go, really. Five jumps later, we landed on the roof of the second-to-last ‘scraper.

I glanced at the street address helpfully painted on a small sign near the edge. “This is it. Should we climb down to street level, or just use the stairs?”

After thinking for a moment, Adam proclaimed “Stairs. Less chance the fey are watching up here, and the giants probably won’t be able to ambush us from this direction. At least, not before we’ve had a chance to explain ourselves.” He nodded at the stairwell in the middle of the roof, protected by a large metal door. “Can one of you girls pick that?”

Veda sauntered over to the door, removing a lockpick set from her pocket. I had left mine at home, so I didn’t bother trying to do it myself. The alarm would sound once she started, of course, but hopefully we’d still have time to explain ourselves before the Nifs started shooting.

“You going to be fine with just that?” Adam asked as we waited, indicating Pam’s pistol, which I had taken with me. “You probably need a higher caliber for giants.”

I shrugged. “Hopefully, we won’t need to shoot at all.”

The baseline laughed heartily, then stopped suddenly when he noticed I wasn’t joining in. “Wait, you’re serious?”

I frowned. “Yeah, of course. There’s a fey attack nearby, I’m sure the Nifs will see reason.”

He snorted and checked his submachine gun. “This is the same city where people were perfectly willing to fight a civil war while a zombie apocalypse dropped on their heads. Somehow, I don’t think a couple gargants will be enough to convince these guys we need to work together.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” Veda called. We looked over to see that she had gotten the door open. “They’ll be here soon.” She stood to the side, to let us go first. Made sense; she wasn’t armed.

Adam brushed past her quickly, gun raised, with me close behind. A few seconds after I entered the stairwell, I heard Veda’s feet behind me, and then the door closed.

It was dark enough so that I couldn’t see with my daygoggles on. As we exited the stairwell I moved them to my forehead, making it seem like the entire room was lit as bright as day. My eyes watered a little, and I blinked to clear them, but they slowly adjusted. The room wasn’t very big, and was mostly empty except for what looked like the remains of an unmanned barricade oriented towards the stairs we had just exited.

Adam noticed my discomfort. “I can see well enough. You might want to leave the goggles on.”

I shook my head. “No, we’ll need the advantage. Besides, I’d be basically blind with them on.”

“I think you’re blind enough without them.”

Adam instantly turned his gun on the man who had spoken; a small Mexican boy with angry eyes, nonchalantly standing in the doorway to the next room. It took me a second to recognize him.

“Kevin?” I said. I motioned for Adam to lower his gun; he did so grudgingly. “What are you doing here?”

My brother’s roommate shrugged as he holstered his Raaze on his hip. “Seemed like a good spot to hide. You?”

“Looking for something to stop those gargants outside.”

“Isn’t there a gun shop nearby?” a friendly voice from behind Kevin said. The smaller man stepped aside, and Steve walked through the doorway. My brain did a double take. Was he a giant? He was almost big enough, but I had always assumed the dark-skinned baseline was…well, baseline.

Veda managed to get me back to the matter at hand just by answering the man’s question. “It’s a blind-rammer and an iron-lord. It’s gonna take a bit more than a couple god slayers.”

Steve frowned. I think it was the first time I hadn’t seen him smiling. “Blind-rammer…those are the gargant trackers, right? They hunt something down by scent? What are they looking for?”

I shrugged, which seemed to be enough of an answer for him. Who knew what the fey ever wanted?

“It’s not important,” Adam said decisively. “We need to talk to whoever is in charge of this outpost. Get something that can kill the iron-lord, at least.”

Kevin nodded. “Fair enough. I know the Colossus in charge, I’ll take you to him.” He headed back to the stairwell we had just exited and quickly disappeared downstairs.

I was almost too surprised to follow. He knew the local warlord? It really seemed more logical to assume Steve.

The large man seemed to understand my confusion. As he walked over to the stairs, he shrugged, giving me a silly little grin. “Don’t look at me. I just followed him here. I don’t know anything about the place.”

I shook my head to clear away distracting thoughts and followed the rest of the group down. There would be time for all that later.

Kevin led us down to the third floor from the bottom, where the Nifs seemed to have decided to make their stand. I had to put my daygoggles back on because of the light, but that was about the only problem. The giants parted to let us through, apparently trusting Kevin wasn’t leading enemies into their base.

There weren’t that many, maybe half a dozen. But all the giants were bare chested and heavily armed with weapons that looked too big for me to even lift. At first I was a bit surprised by their choice of clothing—or lack thereof—but then I noticed them sweating and realized what it was.

Nifs liked cold weather, and usually kept their bases at around freezing. However, this outpost had apparently been a secret, so they were forced to keep everything at normal temperature to avoid arousing suspicions. The cool room must have felt like a sauna to them.

Kevin glanced around, frowning. “Where’s Eva?” he asked the giants. “I need to talk to her about something.”

The biggest one, a bearded man almost eight feet tall, shrugged and rested his shotgun on his shoulder. At least I think it was a shotgun. It was big enough to be mistaken for a missile launcher. “She left the second the gargants attacked. Said she wasn’t going to let them kill people.”

My brother’s small roommate—made even smaller by the giants surrounding him—cursed under his breath. “Titan’s testes. Of course she did. And why didn’t she bring the rest of you? She couldn’t believe she’d have a chance on her own.”

“She thought a half-dozen Nifs appearing in the middle of kemo territory would be suspicious.”

I frowned. “Makes sense. Who’s domain is this, anyway?” While some of the domains were mostly permanent, such as the skyscrapers belonging to the vampires or angels, most of them were fluid, and changed every few weeks as the subcultures gained and lost territory. This area was generally kemo, but other than that I didn’t pay attention to who was in charge.

“Canes,” he explained. “Since a couple weeks ago.” He shrugged. “It’s actually been pretty quiet over here. Nothing really worth fighting for, not with the screamers distracting everyone.”

Adam rubbed his forehead. “The politics and so on are interesting—really, they are—but we need weapons. You got some kind of…” he wiggled his hand back and forth. “Liquid nitrogen…thing?”

The giant snorted. “I wish. Nothing but basic air conditioning, and that died during the last attack. We do have some rocket launchers, but those aren’t gonna be enough.”

Veda scratched her chin. “Maybe…depending on what kind of air conditioning set up you have, I might be able to rig something…”

Adam glanced at her in surprise. “Really? You can do that?”

The cherve rolled her eyes. “Don’t act so surprised. You don’t know anything about me. I’m majoring in Military Engineering, and my main class this semester is Scavenging and Repair. If the air conditioner isn’t enough, I’ll build you a nuke out of a few sticks of gum.”

The baseline took the joke in stride. “No nukes, please. We’re trying to save the area, not level the entire city.” He nodded to the giant who had been speaking. “Honored Titan, please, show my friend to your air conditioner.”

The titan signaled to one of his men, who gently pulled Veda in the direction of the stairs. As they started going up, she turned back. “I’ll also need some tools and those rocket launchers, if anyone wants me to do anything useful.”

Adam glanced at the titan, who nodded. He turned back to the kemo. “It will be up in a minute. Just do your best.”

Veda grinned. “My best? Of course not. You already said no nukes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 94)

Not much to say about this one, really. I think it came out well, though.

EDIT:  For some reason, this missed its scheduled update.  Gonna have to look into that.

Scene 93 – Expertus

EXPERTUS

SIMON

It was Friday afternoon, two days since Yolanda and I started dating. It was going better than I expected; most of my relationships crashed and burned by this point. Either they decided I wasn’t worth dealing with, or I accidentally insulted them, or they turned out to be a lesbian. Okay, that last one only happened once, and at least Jelena and I were still friends.

So I was understandably concerned when she called me this morning, saying she wanted to talk. I was terrified that I had done something wrong again, and this would go the same way as all my other relationships. Or maybe she was pregnant. That was never fun.

Thankfully, it turned out to be just poor word choice on her part.

The bland baseline reached across the table to shake my hand. “Hi, I’m Adam. I’m in Applied Firearms with Yolanda.”

I shook his hand a little hesitantly. He had a good strong grip, which wasn’t unexpected for a gunner, but I was still reeling.

“Sorry,” I said slowly. “I…” I glanced at Yolanda; she was smiling innocently. I turned my attention back to her friend. “Sorry. Didn’t really know what to expect.”

He grinned. “Living in this city, I’d assume you’d learn to expect anything.”

“Well, that’s just it. You’re not from the city, are you?” I shrugged. “I guess I was just expecting something other than a baseline.”

“That’s pretty much exactly what outsiders are,” Yolanda noted with a smile.

“Except for the cyborgs,” Adam noted mildly, as he sipped his coffee. “About sixty percent of the population has metal bits instead of fleshy ones.”

I stared…then frowned. “And now you’re just screwing with me.”

He grinned over his coffee cup. “And you’re smarter than you look.”

I rubbed my forehead, between my horns. “Oh, this is going to be…interesting.”

Yolanda gripped my hand. “Simon, be nice.”

Adam put his coffee down, frowning. “Wait, Simon…I’ve heard that name before.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, yeah. Not exactly rare.”

“No, that’s not it.” He reached into his pocket, searching for something. “She said a purple demon named Simon…crap, what was the last name?” He retrieved a slip of crumpled paper and glanced at it. “…Lancaster?”

Now it was my turn to frown. “Yeah, that’s me. What’s the problem?”

He rubbed his forehead, muttering curses under his breath. “Uh…I’m a friend of Laura’s. Laura Medina? You guys knew each other from…somewhere.”

“Yeah, from before she moved.” The waitress placed my drink in front of me; I thanked her and took a sip. “Ack, too hot…sorry, but why did Laura tell you about me?”

“She, uh…” he floundered for a second before finding the right words. “I’ve only met like three people beyond my roommate and my girlfriend, so she keeps trying to introduce me to new people.”

I blinked. “You’re dating Laura?”

Thankfully he had only just started reaching for his drink; otherwise he would have probably spat it all over us in surprise. “Wait, what—no, no! I’m dating Lily! Lily, uh…” He frowned. “You know, its really hard to describe people when half of you don’t have last names.”

Yolanda chuckled. “Don’t worry, we know who you’re talking about.”

I was still skeptical. “You’re the baseline she’s dating?”

“Um…yes.” He scratched briefly behind his ear. “Why?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know, I kinda figured it was just a stupid rumor. She’s never gone steady with anyone before.” I paused, thinking. “Unless Malcanthet counts.”

“She doesn’t,” Yolanda said immediately and firmly. “By any stretch of the definition. How could you even think that?”

I winced. “I just…c’mon, from a certain point of view—”

“No. Not from any point of view. Seriously, where’d you get your info? The gossip blogs?”

I sighed. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

Adam, thankfully, swooped in quickly to help change the subject. “Laura mentioned you have a sister, Simon. Where’s she?”

I latched on to the distraction quickly. “Seena? She’s off with her culture right now. Probably more training.”

He took another sip of his coffee. I noticed that he had a small white cloth concealed in his hand. What was that for? Was he worried about spills or something? “Laura said she’s a vampire.”

“Yeah, a Mal. Got recruited right before school started.”

“Can’t say I know them.”

I blinked, surprised. The Mals weren’t exactly a huge subculture, but still…then I nodded in understanding. “Ah, right, most of what you’ve heard about the cultures would be through Lily. She doesn’t like talking about the Mals.”

The baseline frowned. “Really? What’s so bad about them? I mean, she avoids any talk of succubi or daevas like the plague, but—”

“The Mals are assassins,” Yolanda explained. She waved her hand airily. “Lily has some weird thing about that. Doesn’t even think about it if she has to.” She bit her lip adorably and turned to me. “There’s a word for that. I just can’t recall…”

I closed my eyes, trying to remember. “Starts with a ‘p,’ I think…”

“Pacifism?”

I snapped my fingers and pointed at Adam. “Yes, that’s it. She’s a pacifist.”

The baseline stared at each of us in turn. Then he just shook his head. “This goddamned city…”

Yolanda cocked her head questioningly.

He waved the hand that wasn’t holding his coffee—which, I noticed, also had a small white rag concealed. “Don’t worry about it. So you’re a…”

“Sibriex,” I explained. “We invent new ways to use the toy maker. Or…well, the rest of the culture does. I’m really not very good at it.”

He sipped briefly from his coffee. “I thought that was a vampire subculture.”

“You’re probably thinking of the Glasyans. And yeah, they’re basically the same, but for vampires.”

The waitress, a dae with a big bushy tail, sashayed up to the table with an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray. “You guys all right? Anything else I can get you?”

I smiled politely. “Ah…no. We’re fine, thanks.”

“Well, let me know.” She turned to go.

Turned a little too fast, actually. Her tail smacked me full in the face. I spluttered as hair got in my mouth, and started flailing around, trying to push it away.

That was the exact wrong thing to do. I knocked her off balance, and the platter immediately went flying. She yelped and dodged to the side, while the pitcher landed on the table and shattered.

Glass went flying everywhere. I tried to shield Yolanda, and got small pieces in my back for my trouble. Thankfully it was some kind of safety glass, so it broke it little pebbles rather than razor-sharp shards, but it still hurt like hell.

“God, you guys okay?” I turned to see Adam rushing forward, my enhanced eyes spotting something glinting in both of his fists, still gripping those little white towels. What the hell? Was he coming at us with knives?

I would never learn the answer to that question, because a split second after he leaped out of his chair, a roar shook the entire building.

I looked behind me, past the dae waitress still cowering on the floor, to see what all the fuss was about. It was a street-level open air cafe, so I had a pretty good view of what was going on.

It was a gargant.

A massive one.

It was bigger than a bus—had to be at least thirty feet long and fifteen tall. It had six legs, each as thick as a tree trunk, splayed about its body. Its belly was low to the ground, and a rational part of my mind noted that this probably indicated it was built from some kind of lizard.

It didn’t have a tail, but its entire body was covered in thick plates of cartilage, fitting together like the scales of a crocodile. These were a dull yellow, giving the impression the gargant was armored in gold.

The most distinctive part of its anatomy, however, was the creature’s head. It had no eyes or mouth, and no visible nostrils—though I knew from my studies that there would be a large number of very small ones scattered around its skull. The gargant was blind and deaf, but that was intentional.

I knew from my time with the sibriex that it was a blind-rammer gargant. Not the most dangerous creation of the fey, but dangerous enough, and very hard to kill. But something about it bothered me…

I tabled my thoughts about the gargant itself for the moment, cursing my luck at having been caught in a fey attack. They liked doing one big attack a day—each—so it was inevitable to get caught up in one every once in a while, but they usually didn’t use full gargants.

The beast stumbled forward into a storefront, thankfully one that had anticipated its arrival and evacuated. Metal screeched as the gargant broke concrete and twisted the rebar supports, nosing through the crushed window for…something. What, exactly, was unclear. Blind-rammer gargants were quite rare, so there was little data on the reasons behind their behavior patters.

It was clearly seeking something, though what was impossible to say for certain. Maybe it was trying to track something by smell? It was pretty much the only sense the poor thing had left.

“Grace, get up,” I heard from behind me. I turned to see Adam helping our waitress to her feet. “You need to run.”

The dae blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Run until you can contact MC. Quickly.”

The girl fished for something in her pockets, presumably her phone. “What are you talking about? I can just—”

“The phone’s are down,” the baseline insisted. “I already tried. This is not a random attack.”

The kemo swallowed, then nodded and ran in the opposite direction of the rampaging behemoth.

I mentally noted the fact that Adam seemed to know our clumsy waitress—I was starting to get more than a little suspicious of him, but there were more important things to worry about at the moment. “You think the fey sent this one?”

“Obviously,” he said as he plopped his gun case on the table, opened it up, and took out a massive shotgun. He checked it briefly, then started belting on a bandolier and holster. “But yes, I do think they sent it here for someone specific.”

“That’s what I meant,” I corrected myself. “Obviously the fey sent it. But who for?”

“Damned if I know. Crap, I knew I should have bought more god slayers when I had the chance…”

“Wouldn’t do much good here,” Yolanda muttered. She was clinging to me very tightly, but was otherwise composed. She wasn’t even trembling. Or maybe I just couldn’t feel it under my trembling. “Unless you can get a round through one of its nostrils, we’re pretty much out of luck.”

Adam muttered a curse under his breath. “Not likely. I’m not all that accurate. If Kat was here…” he stopped suddenly.

“Kat?” I asked after a moment.

“Friend of mine,” he explained. “Got too close to some screamers—the bats, actually—and got turned.”

Yolanda winced. “Sorry to hear that. Maybe there’s a cure…”

“Maybe we should save that for later,” I reminded them. “The gargant is coming this way.”

Thankfully, it wasn’t charging yet; it was just lumbering forward, head to the street, sniffing for something. Everyone else had already fled to safety behind it, where it had already searched, but there were still a few of us in front of it. And if we tried to run past it on the relatively narrow street, it would sense us through the vibrations, and likely attack outright.

I glanced around at the other cafe patrons, hoping to see some better weapons, but we didn’t seem to be in luck. Pretty much everyone had a few guns, and there were some nice big shotguns, but the only thing heavy enough to breach its hide would be a missile—and no one carried those around.

Too bad we were in kemo territory. If this were a giant domain, there probably would have been a few missile launchers or portable anti-air weapons stashed around. Something that would have been effective against a blind-rammer, at least.

Well, we didn’t have a chance, and thankfully Adam realized that. He started ordering the shocked patrons away from the lumbering beast while I was still standing around wondering what had happened with the dae. If this had been a random attack, he probably would have saved us all.

Unfortunately, it was not, and crazy as they are, the fey are still quite intelligent when they have reason to be.

The gargant roared again, and I finally realized what had been itching my brain for the past five minutes.

Blind-rammers couldn’t roar. They didn’t have mouths.

Iron-lord gargants, however, could.

Coming around the corner from the other direction, right in the path we were fleeing, was a massive ape-shaped creature, fifty feet tall easily. It knuckle-walked forward hesitantly, eying the screaming and panicking little humans at its feet warily.

A giant ape wouldn’t be that difficult to beat, especially at that size. Take out the knees, and its own weight would quickly do what no amount of bullets could do. That’s why you didn’t see ape-rager gargants and their ilk around any more; everyone knew how to kill them, so the fey didn’t bother making them.

This was far more than a giant ape.

Its flesh was iron.

Thousands, maybe millions of tiny plates of steel were stitched to its skin, so small and so fine that at first glance the creature appeared to be made of metal. I don’t know what arcane process the fey used to get around the Square-Cube Law, but apparently it wasn’t easy, since iron-lord gargants were some of the only ones they used it on.

The ape-thing leaned forward, noon light gleaming off its shiny skull, and bit a pedestrian in half with its razor-sharp teeth.

Blood spewed everywhere, especially on the gargant’s face, and I could hear the sound of crunching bones over the constant screaming, as the beast slowly chewed its meal.

Over all the incoherent cries of terror, I heard a voice I recognized. “Simon!”

“Wait—Seena?”

My sister rushed forward, away from the iron-lord, a number of other people in tow. Some of them I didn’t recognize, and seemed to be random strangers she had grabbed to keep them safe, but I quickly spotted Pam, Veda, Jelena, Delphie, and Zusa.

“We’re cornered, and the phones aren’t working,” Pam said grimly, as my sister glomped me in a bear hug. Behind her, I watched Zusa curse and adjust her daygoggles. “Unless you have a couple tanks in your pocket, we need to find some place to hide.”

“This way,” Adam said with some conviction, dashing off to the right and hopefully out of the path of the gargants. The rest of us followed, and found ourselves ducking into an abandoned storefront. “With luck, the monsters will fight each other.”

“That’s your plan?” one of Seena’s rescues snorted in derision. “The fey use pheromones to control their pets. They don’t attack each other.”

“The Dagonite has the right of it,” another one admitted, a young green-haired man. “New plan, please.”

Seena blinked at the first speaker, looking him up and down. “You’re a Dagonite?”

The man wiggled his hand back and forth. Ish.

“Not really the time,” I reminded them. “Adam, any ideas?”

He frowned. “I’m not really…tactics are Laura’s area.”

I tried to keep my calm. I sure as hell wasn’t a strategist either, but he definitely sounded like he had a better chance at leading us out of this than me. I just had to convince him, first. “Laura isn’t here. What would she tell you to do if she was?”

The baseline thought for a moment, then indicated the clothing racks scattered around the store. “Roll those over to the front, make a barricade. We should be able to hold out until help arrives.”

“Do you really think that will help?” Zusa asked, in a tone of voice that very specifically did not imply that she thought Adam was a moron. She really was a born diplomat.

“It’s mostly a visual barricade,” Adam explained, as he started tugging the racks over. The rest of us leaped to help. “Hopefully they won’t notice us.”

There was a roar, and the storefront exploded inward, showering everyone in glittering pebbles of glass.

The iron-lord gargant poked its head in, searching with its bright eyes, and then reached in the store to try and grab some fresh victims. It was all I could do to shield Yolanda, and that would be only slightly more protection than tissue paper if the beast decided we were it’s target.

Nothing left to do but pray.

Behind the Scenes (scene 93)

Adam didn’t pull that “60%” figure out of nowhere; that’s the percentage of people in Domina who identify as part of one of the cultures. That doesn’t mean that’s the number of people who use the toy maker. Everyone uses the toy maker, except the changelings and the clays, who account for less than 0.1% of the population.

Extra update Wednesday to make up for all the site issues everyone has had to suffer through.

Scene 86 – Electus

ELECTUS

SIMON

“Strange?” Seena asked, taking a sip of my drink before I could stop her. “Strange how?”

I gave up trying to rescue my beverage from my sister and just shrugged. “I don’t know…like halfway through talking to me, he realized he was saying something he shouldn’t.”

It was the morning after my little talk with Steve and Kevin; it was the earliest I’d been able to meet with Zusa. She’d decided to bring along Seena, Delphie, Veda, and Yolanda, which I approved of, especially Yolanda. The blonde demon sat to my right, with my sister to my left. It was a good brainstorming group, as long as we didn’t get off topic.

Unfortunately, she’d also brought Jelena.

Zusa apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, and looked at the Glasyan with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve been scratching all morning.”

Jelena grimaced, her arm arched behind her head to get at her back. “Got an itch on my spine that won’t go away.”

“Have you seen a doctor?” Seena asked with well-faked innocence.

As expected, the pale girl nodded. “Glasya herself checked me out. Said nothing was wrong, it was just a psychosomatic reaction to my capture.”

I felt for the poor vampire, but there was nothing I could do. Glasya had explained to Seena that Jelena’s spine was now a large radio transceiver, similar to the ones the fey used in their homunculi. It wouldn’t allow for any kind of direct control, but all her sensory data was being piped directly to one of the crazy naked bitches.

Jelena didn’t know any of this, of course. Which was probably why she was scratching the back of her neck, a frown on her face.

“Then I’m sure that’s all it is,” I lied with as straight a face as I could muster. Luckily, she didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, otherwise she would have seen right through the ruse.

“That’s not—” Yolanda blushed as everyone turned to her, but still managed to stammer out “Simon was saying something about MC.”

I brushed my hair back. “Uh…yeah.” I didn’t really want to talk about it in front of Jelena, though. “I just need to figure out how to convince her to talk to someone really paranoid.” Then I shrugged. “Well, I guess I really need to find a way to get him to talk to her.”

“It’s MC,” Jelena noted. “If he can’t trust her, who can he trust?”

I winced. “Yeah…this guy is paranoid enough that that’s not a good argument.”

“Bah,” Veda said with a wave of her hand. “That part is easy. You give him an ultimatum. Tell him he can talk to her or…” she waved her hand again. “Or something bad happens. I don’t know the situation. No,” she leaned forward eagerly, her furry ears twitching. “What I’m interested in is your suspicious roommate.”

Seena put my drink down. “Why? What’s so special about him?”

“Well, your brother thought it was worth mentioning. I’m curious as to exactly why.”

I shrugged again, a little uncomfortable at the attention I had heaped on Kevin without his knowledge. “I don’t know, I just thought it was weird. He seemed so confident, and then just did a complete 180.”

“You probably said something stupid and didn’t notice.” Delphie didn’t even bother looking up from the mouse she was feeding in her lap. “You do that sometimes.”

I sighed and put my face in my hands.

“Aw, you broke him,” Veda crooned. “Be nice, mousie.”

“This from you? You’re the one who almost got us killed yesterday when you called those orcs ‘retarded vampires.’”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Didn’t…you spend too much time on the internet. It’s desensitized you.”

I looked up and interrupted before Veda had a chance to respond. “So, there was another screamer attack the other day.”

Seena quickly jumped on the opportunity to switch subjects. “Yeah, five days ago. That was…Tuesday?”

Jelena leaned forward. “Yeah, that’s right. Reports are scarce, but I heard that the Composer unleashed some kind of secret weapon. Killed most of the ‘sarians.”

Zusa frowned. “The screamers just hardened their skin, right?”

The Glasyan shrugged. “That’s what the official report says. But does that sound like something that could kill ninety percent of the Necessarians involved?”

“Hellions and Thors,” Yolanda corrected quietly. The blonde demon blushed, but continued. “My uncle said most of them weren’t from Necessarius. The General and the Hammer sent men to support the Paladins.”

Veda shook her head. “No, that doesn’t make any sense. They aren’t exactly on the best terms with Butler. Actually sending troops out under his command would—”

“—would take something major?” I finished. “Like, for example, a zombie apocalypse?”

The cherve shut her mouth quickly.

“Simon’s right,” Jelena noted. “The cultures were all gearing up to work together.”

Seena sipped at my drink. “Were?”

The Glasyan smiled grimly. “They lost a hundred men or more each the first time they tried it. You think they’re going to keep it up after that? Everyone’s digging in, fortifying their bases. No one is sending Butler men anymore.”

Veda regained her courage. “That’s good. The fortifying, I mean. Before, they were basically just milling around, waiting to get attacked.”

“I don’t know…” I said slowly. “Is that really a good idea? It seems like this is exactly what the Composer would want.”

Zusa smiled. “Oh, come on. You can’t pretend to understand what he’s thinking. It’s like the fey; they’re all crazy.”

“The fey can be dealt with,” Jelena pointed out. “The Composer might not even exist.”

The cherve nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that theory. They say the hackers are just screwing with everyone.”

“The ‘sarians definitely think he’s real,” Yolanda whispered. “Wouldn’t they have a better idea than anyone else?”

Jelena shrugged. “Well, it makes them feel better if they’re getting their asses kicked by an actual person, rather than just a mindless horde of zombies. I don’t know if you noticed, but they stepped up the whole ‘Composer’ thing after this latest debacle.”

I finally grabbed my drink back from Seena. It was mostly gone, but there was still some left. “So, what, they’re just blaming someone convenient and running scared?”

“Everyone’s running scared. I’m sure Headlights can attest to that.” Veda glared, but Jelena just grinned back. It faded after a moment, though. “But yeah, they’re scared. Everyone’s scared. The warlords are pulling back, the ‘sarians have their hands full with captured screamers, and the Paladins are still only five people.” She shrugged. “I know I’m thinking about packing off to one of the other parts of the city.”

“That’s a panic reaction,” Seena admonished, as I carefully dodged her attempts to retrieve my drink. “That is exactly what the Composer wants.” She waved her hand. “Or if there is no Composer, it will still play into the zombies’ hands. It’s herd mentality. If we bunch up, that just makes us juicier targets.”

“She’s right.” Delphie’s mouse had disappeared when I wasn’t looking. “Trust the assassin to know a thing or two about killing.”

My sister buried her face in her hand. “I told you, it’s not like that…”

Delphie waved away her complaints. “You work in a bookstore, you learn how to read. You work around assassins, you learn how to assassinate. You overhear stuff. I’m not insulting you, sweetness, I’m just acknowledging you know what you’re talking about.”

Seena readjusted her daygoggles for the umpteenth time. “Yeah…it’s just not something I want to be known for.”

Zusa wisely steered the conversation back on topic. “So what are we supposed to do, then? If bunching up will get us killed, then—”

“Bunching up is different from herd tactics,” Veda interrupted. “Herds run away. The cultures are fortifying.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s the right idea.”

“They need to make friends,” Zusa corrected. “Fortifying is all well and good, but if the cultures united, no one would be able to touch them.”

“Right now, the cultures are just slightly harder targets,” I mused. I was more determined than ever to make sure Aramazd and MC allied. It was in everyone’s best interest; I had to be able to convince him of that.

“Not really anything we can do, though,” Delphie grumbled. “Like Jelena said, no one is willing to take a chance right now.”

The Glasyan in question leaned back in her chair, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe it will get better in a few weeks, but I have a feeling someone is going to get hit pretty hard before then. Probably the demons.” She turned to Yolanda. “None of your domains have been hit yet, right?”

The girl shook her head. “No…and I have a feeling you’re right about us being next.” She grimaced. “I guess there’s a decent chance this will be the last any of you see me.”

Death is a fact of life in Domina. More so since the screamers appeared; two of my friends had died at Triple I, and another one was screaming. It’s rare to really have a good idea of when you’re going to die, though. We don’t have much disease, and bullets kill faster than sickness anyway.

So this left us all with a very unique opportunity. We could try sequestering her in the domain of a culture that had already been hit to reduce her chances of getting caught in an attack, but in the current political climate, that probably wouldn’t work. Besides, what about all the other demons?

I could see it in her eyes; she was planning to stay with her culture, probably die at the next attack. She was stronger than she looked.

We could have a party, or something. Not a funeral, since that would jinx it, but even just spending more time together would make her happy. It was the least we could do, and from the looks on everyone’s faces, they all agreed with me.

So I pulled her close and kissed her.

Behind the Scenes (86)

This is…eh. I had difficulty writing it, much more than I had any right to. But I still think it came out okay.

Oh, and about Simon’s comment: Disease isn’t anywhere close to defeated in Domina. It’s a little better than our world, between the disease-resistance buffs and just general higher-quality medicine world-wide, but deaths from disease are still extremely rare. Generally, if someone gets sick enough so that their life is actually in danger, they’ll be killed by someone—maybe an old enemy, maybe just a thief, whatever—long before the disease has run its course. It’s to the point that if someone recovers from a life-threatening disease, they are often assumed to be a doppelganger, an identity thief who murdered the original after using the toy maker to disguise themselves.

Scene 22 – Cotidie Vitam

COTIDIE VITAM

SIMON

“Hey, Simon!”

I turned to see Delphie waving at me from across the street. She was standing with Jelena and a few girls I didn’t recognize; probably their roommates. I jogged over to them, only pausing for a moment to let a big truck pass.

“Hey Del, Jel.” They both scowled, and I grinned. It was fun teasing them, but one of these days they were gonna claw my eyes out. “Who’re your friends?”

Jelena rolled her eyes (she wasn’t wearing her daygoggles), but answered. “This is Yolanda,” she indicated a young-looking blonde demon with small horns, who smiled politely. “And this is Veda.” The bronze-skinned Indian girl nodded by way of greeting. She had kemo ears instead of human ones, but I couldn’t quite tell what species. Something brown and furry, which didn’t narrow it down at all. “They’re my roommates.”

“And I’m Zusa Pham, Delphie’s roommate,” the third girl introduced herself, reaching out to shake my hand. I did so, careful to avoid the claws. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Veda warned, and from the winces at that I realized belatedly that I had been called over in a failed attempt to derail a conversation no one wanted to listen to. “You haven’t explained just what the hell is wrong with VCS: Shootout III.”

Zusa shook her head. “Besides the fact that its an FPS based on an RPG based on a bad anime? It’s exactly the same as the second one. And they screwed up the shotgun!”

“That’s how shotguns act in the show. Its more accurate.”

“No, that’s just the problem. I have better aim with the garden hose.”

“The garden hose is a joke gun—”

“I know that, that’s my point—

“The baseline is Pam, Seena’s roommate,” Jelena cut in, trying to put a cork in the inanity.

Unfortunately, the girl with the reddish hair didn’t seem to appreciate it. “I think I can handle it myself, thanks.”

In an attempt to defuse another situation before things got out of control, I smiled and held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Simon, Seena’s brother.”

The baseline smiled shook my hand firmly, then glared at Jelena. “See, he can be polite.”

I let go of her hand and glanced around. “Where is Seena, anyway? I thought she didn’t have any classes on Friday.”

Jelena winced. “She’s…avoiding us a little. She told us yesterday about something stupid she did a few years back.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s no big deal, but…”

“No big deal?” Pam demanded. “She—”

Jelena immediately covered the other girl’s face with her hand.

“She did something embarrassing that she wouldn’t like spread around,” the Glasyan noted. She nodded to her and Delphie’s roommates. “Sorry girls, you understand.”

Zusa rolled her eyes—at least, I think she did. Hard to tell under the daygoggles. At least she had stopped arguing with Veda. “I know how that is. C’mon, let’s find somewhere to sit down.”

There was an internet cafe nearby, at the corner of Baator and Melange. We found a nice table outside in the shade, though it was still too bright for Zusa to take off her goggles—in fact, Jelena put hers back on. The kemo, Veda, immediately turned back to Zusa as though their conversation had never been interrupted.

“The fact that the guns are the same isn’t the point. The single-player is completely different, and the AI vastly improved.”

The vampire shook her head. “Who cares about single-player? The multiplayer scene is the same—or it would be, if anyone was playing it. The unlockable pistol breaks the game so much no one is even bothering.”

I waved Lily over as quickly as I could. I got enough of this at work, I didn’t want to listen to it here.

The little demon deftly interjected herself in a break in the conversation, managing to interrupt without actually seeming rude. “Can I get you anything?”

I glanced at the others. They just shrugged, though Zusa and Veda still seemed to be ready to start sniping at each other the second they had the chance.

“I think a few waters will be enough, thanks.” The little demon girl nodded and sashayed off, her tail swishing back and forth. I was considering getting one too, but I kept hearing bad things about them.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Zusa said with a grin.

I blinked. “What?”

“We all saw you staring,” Pam put in. “You know Lily doesn’t date anyone, right?”

Jelena drummed her fingers against the table. “She does one-night stands though, I think. Not often, but sometimes.”

I rubbed my forehead—almost slicing my hand open on my horns in the process—and sighed. Annoying as it was, at least teasing me had got them off that stupid game. “Nine hells, I was not leering.”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Sure. Whatever you say.”

“Seriously. I was wondering if I should get a tail, that’s all.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Lily said as she started passing out glasses of ice water from her tray. She was a sneaky little thing; I hadn’t even heard her walk up. “They’re cool once you get used to them, but before that you’ll break pretty much everything withing five feet of you for about a week.” She put down the last glass and shrugged. “Plus, they’re not strong enough to be useful, you know? Unless you’re willing to spend a couple hundred bucks.”

“Well…thanks for the advice,” I managed. “I’ve just been thinking about getting some new toys, is all.”

“You should try a pheromone buff,” Delphie suggested. That’s also about when we all noticed that there was a mouse in her lap, nibbling on a piece of cheese. “They’re pretty useful.”

Zusa cocked her head. “Wait—you’re a murid? Is that why you hate laces?”

The brown-haired girl shrugged. “Sometimes they hunt us for sport.”

The murids were mice kemos. Delphie was a bit of an oddity in her subculture…in any subculture, really. All her toys were completely internal, so most people couldn’t tell she was anything but baseline. The only one I knew about for sure was the mouse pheromone buff she had just mentioned. She had a habit of befriending mice when she was bored.

Pam glared. “Could you not do that at the table?”

Delphie looked at her a little oddly. “What? It’s not like we’re eating.”

Jelena rolled her eyes. “Anyway, you guys hear about that screamer attack the other day?”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “It was a lot worse than the first one. Pretty much the entire area is gone, right?”

“Call if you need something,” Lily said as she quickly excused herself.

We didn’t pay her any mind. “I found some weird theories on the internet,” Zusa admitted. “Not really sure what’s real or not.”

“I heard Senator McDowell was there,” Jelena added. “Though that’s probably BS political stuff.”

“No…” Yolanda said so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. “He was definitely there.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t just being optimistic about his honesty; she was certain of it.

I took a sip of water. “I’m not sure where you get your news, but since they didn’t release any pictures, how can you know?”

The blonde demon twiddled her fingers. “There were some pictures…but anyway, he’s my uncle.”

Jelena, who had been sipping her own water at the time, suddenly snorted so hard that water dribbled out of her nose. As expected, she didn’t let that stop her. “Wait, you’re one of those McDowells? I thought it was just a coincidence!”

Yolanda shrugged uncomfortably.

The Glasyan frowned. “Wait, isn’t his apartment in that area? I thought I read something about that.”

Yolanda shifted awkwardly in her seat. “His apartment was nearby, but it wasn’t hit. He was shopping right there when the attack started.” She smiled a little. Just a little, but it was still cute as a button. “Actually…you might be more interested in this part: He said he met the Paladins.”

Pam leaned forward at that. “Really. You know, I was half sure they were just bullshit ‘sarian propaganda.”

I rolled my eyes. “C’mon, the Big Boss doesn’t do that.”

The baseline let out a barking laugh. “Yeah, you keep thinking that.” She grinned a little cruelly at Zusa. “What about you, Zuzu? You look like an optimist too. You think he manipulates the media?”

The vampire glared back pretty impressively considering she still had her daygoggles on. “No, actually, I don’t think so.” Pam laughed, but the vampire continued. “Also, I need to ask you not to call me ‘Zuzu.’” She shook her head. “I hate that nickname, but Lizzy won’t stop calling me it.”

I set my glass down. “As in Elizabeth Greene?”

Veda finally looked up. “Wait, the voice actress?”

Zusa sighed. “Yeah, her.” She shrugged and sipped at her water. “You know how it is. She’s sweet, but once she gets an idea into her head she just won’t let it go. She spoke nothing but Vietnamese to me the first day we met, until I finally got up the courage to tell her I only understood like three words.”

Delphie grinned a little. “Yeah, that’s Lizzy.”

“But then she switched to Hebrew…” she sighed again. “I didn’t even tell her I was Jewish. She guessed from my name.”

I frowned. “Wait, what’s your last name?”

“I told you already. My last name is Pham. That’s Vietnamese. But Zusa is Hebrew.” The vampire waved her delicately clawed hand. “Or Yiddish. I can never keep those straight.”

“I still want to know about the Paladins,” Jelena insisted. She turned back to Yolanda. “Did your uncle say anything about them?”

But the demon just shrank back and shook her head, clearly overwhelmed by the attention. Lord help me, but she looked cute when she was embarrassed.

“Say anything about who?” Derek asked, as he pulled up a chair next to me.

I motioned to Lily, across the cafe, to get another water, and she nodded. “I thought you said you had a job today.”

He shrugged. “Pushed it back. I forgot Akane had kendo.”

I nodded in understanding. This was the first week of school, after all. It was only expected that not everyone remembered everyone else’s schedules quite yet. But still, it was a bit surprising to see him regardless. Usually when his plans fell through, he just found an excuse to stay at home researching or whatever. This was the first time we had hung out together outside of school in…I don’t know how long.

“Have you met everyone yet?” Jelena asked. “I know you know Delphie…”

“No, I don’t think so.” He smiled warmly as he shook Zusa’s, Veda’s, and Yolanda’s hands in turn, and they all introduced themselves. “Pleased to meet you all. I’m Derek Huntsman.”

Veda gaped. “Wait, that Derek? Lizzie’s boyfriend?”

He instantly turned red as a tomato. “W-what? No! We’re not…” he turned away.

The Indian kemo nodded. “Right, right. That’s what the blogs are saying. But aren’t you in love with her, or something?”

The blond man coughed. “T-that is highly personal, and I don’t think—”

“That’s a yes,” she declared immediately. She whipped her phone out, grinning. “I am so putting this on my Fundie.”

Jelena snatched up her phone before she could do anything and tossed it to me. “Don’t be stupid, Headlights. He asked you not to.”

Veda tried to reach across the table and grab her cell back, but I held it out of reach. “She’s right, you know.”

She sighed and stopped grabbing for her property. “But it’s not fair. She always blogs about her celebs.”

The Glasyan smiled. “I don’t know any ‘celebs,’ Headlights.”

The cherve—now that Jelena was referring to her as the short form of ‘Deer in Headlights,’ it was obvious that Veda was a deer kemo—actually laughed. “Oh, really? And I suppose you’re not itching to post about how you met Senator McDowell’s niece.”

Derek, having regained his composure, raised an eyebrow. “He has a niece?”

Yolanda waved a little weakly. So cute. “Yeah, that’s me.”

Lily placed Derek’s water on the table, and he took a sip. “I’m sorry, but I can’t quite remember which one he is. He’s the demon who keeps petitioning to get more infrastructure on the Fusion Islands, right?”

The blonde demon laughed for the first time since I had met her. Like before, when she had smiled, it was something else entirely. She was cute when she was embarrassed. She was beautiful when she was happy. “No, no, not at all. He’s an ursa anthro. Melano, to be exact.”

Derek spat his drink across the entire table, splattering everyone with the contents of most of his glass.

“He’s a SENATOR?” he practically shrieked. He had a completely dumfounded look on his face that I usually only saw when he was around Lizzy. “Big panda, maybe seven feet tall and built like a truck? Black fur clustered around his head?”

Yolanda frowned. “Yeah. You know him?”

“He…” he paused, searching for the words. “I saw some pictures of the burner attack on Monday. He was in a couple of them.”

Jelena chuckled. “Yeah, I saw those too. Not quite sure they weren’t photoshopped, but I’m coming around.”

I grinned and clapped Derek on the back, mostly to try and get him out of his shock. “Isn’t that good news? Disproves that stupid motto of yours.”

Jelena brushed her hair away from her horns. “What?”

“Non est salvatori salvator, neque defensori dominus, nec pater nec mater, nihil supernum.”

We all stared at Pam.

She shrugged. “We’ve met a couple times. It stuck with me.”

I shook my head to clear it. “Well, yeah, that’s the one. ‘The savior has no savior.’ Aren’t you glad that’s not true?”

He grinned back. “Yeah, definitely. It’s good not to have to be the white knight all the time.”

But his grin was weak, and I knew he didn’t believe a word of it.

Behind the Scenes (scene 22)

Normal-size rats still exist in Domina, but they are generally mistaken for dirty mice. A lot of the younger generation don’t even realize they’re separate species. ‘Mouse,’ therefore, can refer to either one. For the record, the one Delphie is playing with here is a mouse.

Also, Lizzy actually spoke Yiddish at Zusa. But as you may have noticed, she’s not really clear on all the details of her heritage, so she didn’t know the difference.