Scene 17 – Cantor

CANTOR

LAURA

The Princess’s monsters never reached horde size, and they never swarmed. After ten minutes or so, they stopped showing up, and we killed the rest without difficulty. I guess she got bored.

Goddamned fey.

I made a mental note to explain everything about them to Adam later. At least he had stopped asking questions, and focused on the screamers. Akane and Ling would of course know everything already, and the retinue likely knew more than I did, with a changeling among their number.

Derek gave the order to move out, and we traveled the last couple blocks in the same formation as before. It quickly became apparent that the screamers were migrating away from us slowly, and they had already been through this away. Most of the cars were on fire, and all the lower-level stores had their windows shattered. There were surprisingly few bodies, which made sense; if the disease could really spread through a song, there would be a lot more zombies than before.

What really worried me, more than an infection we couldn’t protect against, was that the screamers seemed to have a purpose this time. Did that mean that whoever was behind this could actually control them directly?

I shied away from that thought. Something to worry about later.

For the time being, the song was the problem. I didn’t know anything concrete, obviously, but we might be able to rig up some sort of headphones to filter it out with MC’s help. But we definitely didn’t have anything like that on hand. Hopefully, those of us with powers would still be immune to infection, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Eventually we caught up with the horde, staying about a hundred yards behind them—close enough to observe, but hopefully far enough so they didn’t detect our presence.

“They’re chasing a crowd,” Derek cursed quietly. Don’t ask me how I could hear him over the sound of the screaming still echoing in my brain. It was like it was a sixth sense, separate from hearing. It didn’t interfere with my hearing any more than my sight did.

“We need more information before we do anything,” I advised. I turned to the fel, Katherine. “Can you scout ahead?” I didn’t mean it as an order, I honestly wasn’t sure if she had the ability. But she just nodded, slung her rifle over one shoulder, and started climbing up the side of the closest building.

A few minutes after she disappeared from view, Kelly got a text.

“Most of the crowd is safe with some Necessarians,” she reported. “They’ve set up a barricade, but it won’t last. There are other nests of survivors, but they’re getting picked off quickly.”

“Powers?” Derek asked with a grunt.

Kelly didn’t text anything; I assume she had it on speaker. After a moment, her cell vibrated again, and she frowned.

“Fire,” she said. She flipped the phone shut. “Don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

“Range,” Akane whispered, before falling silent again. She was getting better, but this was obviously still far too many new people for her to feel comfortable with.

Ling nodded in assent. “They probably have longer range than the biters. Which means…” she paused. “…ah. I’m not sure.”

“It means this won’t be the turkey shoot it was last time,” I finished for her. “Depending on how smart they are, this may be more than we can handle. But the real problem is those singers the Princess mentioned. Do you see any?”

It took almost a minute for Kelly’s phone to vibrate again. “’I see some that could be singing,’” she recited. “’But I can’t tell for sure. They’re just standing around, and the screamers are ignoring them. Should I advance?’”

“No,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. “We don’t know enough. Hold position, but be prepared to take them out on my order.”

Derek frowned at me. “You’re worried about the singers.”

I nodded, not afraid to admit it. “We don’t have enough information. For all we know, the Princess was just babbling nonsense.”

“That’s unlikely,” Jarasax put in. “The fey are crazy, sure, but they’re not actively delusional.” He shrugged. “It’s probably some metaphor we don’t understand.”

Well, he’d know. The Blood-Doused Hunters were changelings, escaped fey-slaves experimented on by their deranged captors. They knew more about the fey than anyone else alive.

“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Derek decided quickly. “Kelly, take the retinue—and Adam—to another ‘scraper. Somewhere you have a good vantage point, but can’t hear the singers. Set your cells to record, too, just in case.” He flipped out his phone, doing as he suggested. The rest of us followed suit. “I’m guessing the rest of us are immune, but we’ll go in one by one, just in case. I’m on point. Everyone else, pattern Red.”

He headed off, and Akane waited a minute before following, ten yards behind. Ling shrugged and followed her.

I considered disobeying his implied order; I didn’t owe him anything, and I might be more useful with the retinue. But they were experienced soldiers who could take care of themselves. I had a feeling that these singers were going to be confusing enough if I saw them with my own eyes. If I tried to get a second-hand description, I’d never learn anything.

So I followed Ling, and heard the retinue splitting off to the right—away from the skyscraper Katherine had chosen. I resolutely focused on what was in front of me.

We dodged around more burning cars and eventually reached an impromptu road block made from a bunch of large trucks parked as close as possible. These were also abandoned, and also on fire. Clambering over the parts that weren’t burning, we finally came face to face with the horde.

A hundred yards away, barely able to see them, that was one thing. Actually being in the thick of them…that was another entirely.

Their screams were deafening at this range; I clapped my hands over my ears, and even Derek had to resort to hand signals, though they didn’t react as violently as me. After a moment, I began to get used to the massive background noise, and lowered my hands.

There were more than last time; maybe a thousand, crowding around the intersection and crawling over wrecked cars like so many ants. They didn’t pay any mind to the flames, making it obvious they had some form of heat resistance in addition to everything else, and threw themselves at the few redoubts of humanity left.

Best as I could tell, there were four, besides the main ‘sarian bulwark directly in front of us and across the street. Some of the larger shops, mostly the ones without large windows to break through, periodically spat hails of gunfire at the approaching zombies. They responded with actual fire, grabbing it up from nearby cars and tossed it like snowballs.

“We’ll have to split up,” Derek admitted resolutely. Saw that coming. “I’ll take far left. Akane, you take far right. Ling, other left. Laura, other right.” He gave me a level stare. “Don’t be afraid to fall back to the Necessarians.” He paused. “In fact, you should just do that. We’ll take point C after the others.”

I want to make this clear: I am an intelligent woman. I knew he had the right idea. Splitting up our forces in the first place was a bad idea, but a necessary one. Sending me off to fight was virtually a death sentence, however. My combat skills were sharply limited. Even with the new athletic enhancements my powers gave me, I wasn’t much, and I was pretty sure the screamers had that as part of their power sets as well, so that was hardly an advantage.

But I don’t like being doubted, especially not by Derek Huntsman.

I didn’t even bother saying anything, I just ran off, weaving through the horde and ignoring the cries of my companions.

Apparently the screamers were more surprised than my comrades; it took them a moment to react. But I noticed instantly when they did: Flame swept towards me from all directions, most in the form of those fireballs I had seen earlier, but some came at me in great sheets, as if it was a living thing. I could taste the acrid smell of smoke, but I didn’t choke or cough. I’m not sure if that was because I was running so fast, or if it was another aspect of the package we hadn’t noticed. Either way, I made a mental note for later.

I just ran blindly ahead, dodging around the worst of it, heading for the old hardware store Derek had designated point C. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get around the barricade, at least not with a few hundred screamers trying to roast me, but a refrigerator that was blocking the way suddenly moved aside, revealing an entrance. I dove inside, and heard the fridge shoved back into place. I leaned against it and slid to the floor, breathing heavily. The smoke smell wasn’t as strong here, but it still leaked in.

“Honored Paladin, are you all right?”

I opened my eyes slowly to survey the survivors, about twenty in all, all armed. Most had pistols and other small arms, but a few of the bigger guys were lugging around nailguns, and the air compressors required to make them work. Probably weighed a hundred pounds each.

Most of them were baselines, but there were a few vampires, a demon or two, and a single ursa—the one who was talking to me.

He was a big melano, a panda kemo, and one of the first full anthros I’d seen up close, other than Katherine. They had only become feasible in the last few months or so, but this guy moved in his giant body with the grace of long practice. He was one of the ones with the nailguns, the compressor slung across his shirtless (but very furry) back. He was holding out his paw to me, and I took it, careful to avoid the claws, and pulled myself to my feet.

“Thank you, Honored Hunter,” I said carefully, returning his politeness. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, and I didn’t want to offend him. I glanced around, frowning. “I thought this was ursa territory. Where are your packmates?”

He grunted. “Gone,” he said bluntly in a voice like crushed gravel. “Dead or screaming, I’m sure.” He gestured to the barricade. “They ran outside to fight the horde, claiming they wouldn’t let zombies stomp over their neighborhood. Most of them were melee fighters though, and if what the news said is true, that means they’ll just end up infecting themselves.”

“More than likely,” I agreed sadly. The ursas weren’t a true gang, of course; Butler made sure those were all dead and buried, although the Rahabs were putting up a fight. But subcultures often formed…militias, for lack of a better word, and as long as they didn’t break Necessarian law, they were allowed to do as they pleased.

“Have you seen—ah…” I paused. How do describe them? Something was tickling the back of my mind, distracting me from finding the words. That was it; the smell of smoke was getting stronger. I pushed it aside. “I haven’t seen them myself, so I’m not sure how to ask.”

The melano raised an eyebrow. “The singers, you mean?”

I blinked, surprised, and nodded.

“Yes, we’ve seen them. And to answer your next question, yes, their song makes screamers.” He patted his belt, and for the first time I noticed a bulky pair of headphones—identical to the pairs every other survivor had. “It’s hardly ideal, of course, but not being able to hear anything is better than turning into a zombie.”

“I agree completely,” I said with relish. “I was trying to think of a way to get around that problem, but I didn’t have time. Ah,” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You did test it, right?”

He nodded. “Only way we could; singer came in, and we survived.” He turned to one of the vampires. “Drake, go fetch another pair for the paladin. They should be in the storeroom.” The man in question sped off.

That’s about when the barricade exploded.

It wasn’t the refrigerator, thankfully, but the stack of pipes to my left, thrown aside by a gout of roaring flame. I rolled to my right, but I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and flame. I heard the melano cursing, and I heard gunfire and a curious ‘thwip’ sound which I assumed was the nailguns.

I got a good look as the smoke blew aside for a moment; the survivors were hunkered down behind a secondary barricade, headphones on. They popped up every couple seconds to fire a few shots, then dropped down before a fireball flew towards their heads.

The area they were shooting at was so choked with smoke and blowing ash I had no idea what was going on. But every once in a while flame would rip out of the concealment, either in wild sheets or controlled bolts. And of course there was still the screaming, but it was so loud it didn’t help pin down the zombies’ location in the slightest.

I was off the the side, out of the line of fire (no pun intended), but the screamers would notice me sooner or later. I needed a place to hide.

But there was an entire horde outside, pouring in through the breach. There was no way they would stop as long as the hole in our defenses was open.

There was nothing I could do. There wasn’t anything I could use to plug the gap other than the fridge—which, even if I could move (doubtful), was already sealing one hole. The only thing that might work was bringing the ceiling down, but I didn’t have anything powerful enough to have a hope in that direction.

Unless…

It all depended on whether this building had a wood frame or not. Most structures in Domina didn’t, for about a thousand reasons, but some of the older ones did. The only question was whether this place just looked old or if it actually was.

I started kicking at one of the walls with the heel of my foot, trying to break through. After a moment, my suspicious were confirmed: My foot broke through the sheetrock, and rooting around inside I saw the wooden frame the store was built from.

Perfect.

Technically, at this point I just needed to wait for the screamers to finish the job for me. But every second I wasted increased the chances of more survivors dying, both here and at the other redoubts. So I dodged past the second barricade, diving deeper into the store.

I almost barreled into the young vampire the melano had sent for my headphones.

“Honored Paladin!” he exclaimed, clearly surprised. He fumbled for the headphones. “I’m sorry I took so long—”

“No time for that! We’re under attack!”

His jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly, moving to put his headphones on at the same time he reached for his pistol. Good lad, but I stopped him.

“I have a plan,” I explained to his questioning look. “How well do you know the store?”

“Pretty good,” he said slowly. “I started working here about a month ago.”

I nodded. “Good. Where are the hoses? If you sell squirt guns, that would be better.”

“Garden supplies, aisle—”

“Show me.”

He ran off, farther from the front, and I followed closely behind. When it came right down to it, this was a stupid plan, but weren’t they all?

Luck was with us; the store sold squirt guns after all. There weren’t many left—we were heading into winter—but I grabbed a couple of the bigger ones, and Drake did the same.

“Now, where’s your gasoline?”

He blinked. “What?”

“Gasoline! Lighter fluid! Something liquid and flammable!”

He sped off towards the camping department, and we grabbed a couple cans of lighter fluid. We busted them open—they had locks to keep people from siphoning them in the store, and we didn’t have time to find any keys—and filled the squirt guns.

“Okay, back to the front.” I ran off, lugging the suddenly much heavier guns, and he followed half a pace behind. He stopped for a moment, but I didn’t have time to turn, and he caught up anyway.

As expected, the fight was still raging, although now the acrid tinge of burned flesh was in the air. The defenders looked relatively unharmed, so the only other explanation was that the screamers lost their fireproofing upon death. Interesting.

But I didn’t have time to ponder; the smoke cloud was bigger than before, and the fire was coming more and more often. I took aim above the opening and unleashed a stream of lighter fluid at it.

As expected, the bigger guns did have more pressure; it reached its target easily, and quickly caught on fire. It petered out at the end, but I just tossed that near-empty gun into the knot of screamers (which I still couldn’t actually see) and used up my second gun.

I tossed that one away when it was empty as well, and turned to grab another gun from Drake. He had put on his headphones (smart lad) and he handed me the gun without question. I nodded, and we both fired against the same spot.

The roof—at least the part above the entrance the screamers had created—was unquestionably on fire now, and I waved for the vampire to fall back to the barricade. I searched around for a fire extinguisher and found it by the cash register before retreating back to the other defenders. It wouldn’t do to survive a zombie horde and then die because I lit the roof on fire.

It took about ten minutes, during which the fire on both sides of the bulwark never ceased, but I eventually began to hear the tortured groaning of weakening wood coming from the doorframe.

Another five minutes and the groans became more pained and more obvious. There was no mistaking it now; the roof was coming down.

I moved to where the defenders could see me (they were all still wearing their headphones) and indicated a retreat. I headed into the back first, to make sure it stayed a retreat rather than a panicked rout, and they followed close behind. After we had reached sufficiently deep in the store, and I had found a good chokepoint, I indicated they stop and set up, which they did without hesitation.

I heard the roof come down clearly, even at this distance. It sounded like the entire building was collapsing, and our little hallway shook noticeably. Dust—not ash, dust—billowed in from the corridor leading to the front, and the defenders paused in their preparations, concerned. The melano walked up to me, taking off his headphones, but I shook my head and indicated they stay put.

I advanced back to the front of the store slowly, my pistol out. I couldn’t hear any screamers nearby, but I had learned during the mission with the biters that our sixth sense wasn’t very reliable on pinpointing them with that degree of accuracy. Admittedly, I couldn’t hear any with my good old fashioned ears, either, which was a good sign, but it didn’t necessarily mean the way was clear.

As I crept closer, I began to hear something. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, as it became more clear with each passing moment. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what it was anymore. The words were meaningless, but it was still obvious.

There was a singer in the store.

I considered falling back, if only to grab those headphones, but decided against it. Someone had to figure out if we were immune, and if I didn’t risk it, Derek would. When it came right down to it, I was the least useful member of the team. Strategists were cheap; we still had no idea how to empower people.

But still, some precautions were needed. I spoke into my still-on cell phone, which I had left as a recording device. It would dump all its sensor data (mostly just sound) to one of MC’s caches.

“MC, I’m confronting a singer. If I turned into a screamer, stop the recording now.”

Properly prepared, I turned the corner into the entryway and found…

Well, first off, the room was half the size it had been just minutes before. Half the roof had come down, centered on where the doorframe had been, with likely more falling on the horde outside. A sloped pile of shifting rubble took up most of the space, with the rest filled with dust, spinning in the air.

And there, standing ankle-deep in broken chunks of sheetrock and not two feet from a piece of a wooden beam bigger than she was, was the singer.

She was beautiful, I’ll admit. She had that quiet, natural beauty so many people lack, to the point that even covered in a fine layer of dust and ash, rendering her skin and hair colors impossible to discern, she was still gorgeous.

She barely seemed to take note of my presence, preferring instead to sing. I’m not all that musical, but even I could tell it was a difficult song, straining her vocal range to the fullest. She chose mostly higher notes, but dipper deeper as well. There were lyrics too, but it wasn’t any language I recognized. I only spoke three languages, but I have familiarity with a dozen more. Her words didn’t ring any bells.

I was just wondering what to do when I heard a voice behind me. “How are you still sane?”

I turned to see the big melano and the other defenders, still wearing their headphones, staring at me. That was when I realized that he was right; assuming the song worked anywhere near as fast as touching blood or saliva, I should definitely have turned by now.

I just shrugged. I didn’t know what to say, and they wouldn’t have been able to hear me anyway.

“Oh, so it doesn’t make you crazy anymore?” a little black boy, no more than fifteen, said a little too loudly. He was in the middle of the crowd. “That’s good.” He took off his headphones.

“No!” I cried, diving forward. The survivors reacted similarly, crying out in alarm and training their weapons on him. The second he got his ear protection all the way off, a huge smile plastered itself on his face.

“It’s so…beautiful…” he whispered.

Huh. That was odd. I mean, the singer’s song was pretty, in a weird sort of way, but not the mind-numbingly beautiful he seemed to be experiencing.

Interesting.

Any scientific curiosity quickly was quickly drowned out when the boy started screaming, the same wordless, emotionless sound the other zombies made. The melano immediately tackled him to the ground, before anyone could shoot him, protecting him with his own body whether intentionally or not.

We had to get him off first. And we had to do it quickly. The burners didn’t bite very often, but he would eventually, and then we’d have two screamers in our midst. And if someone just shot the boy, his blood would still infect the melano.

The singer was still singing, completely oblivious. I swore loudly and shot her in the head.

I should be more specific: I raised my gun with one hand and tried to shoot her in the head. Even if she hadn’t dodged, I don’t think I would have hit her. Using a gun one-handed is hard enough for people who actually have training and experience.

But regardless, she did dodge, some self-preservation mechanism finally kicking in. She swept her hands forward, still singing, and some embers in the bits of wood in the pile of rubble glowed brighter. With a start, I realized she was trying to use the same powers as the current batch of screamers.

Interesting.

But I had the advantage: I had an 8-shot clip only missing one round. So I just gripped the gun with both hands, squared my shoulders, and emptied the magazine at her center of mass.

She dodged the first, but then one clipped her in the leg, and the next five got her good. She collapsed in a heap like a rag doll, the dust still spinning in the air from our brief fight. Finally, the singing stopped, and it was quiet, except for the screamers outside. I fell to my knees, breathing heavily.

Looking down, I watched a drop of sweat roll off my nose and hit the ground. It made a small explosion in the dust.

I breathed deeply, but my heart refused to slow down.

Something…

It was quiet.

Except for the screamers.

Outside.

I jumped up instantly and ran back to the survivors. They were staring down at the boy with utter astonishment.

He was alive, that much was clear. He was looking around, bewildered, and he wasn’t screaming.

“What happened?” I asked quickly, as I peeled the boy’s eyelid back. I didn’t have a light to do a full test, but his pupils seemed normal.

The melano answered. “It was when you killed the singer. He just…stopped screaming.”

The boy was still looking around; I grabbed his head and made him face me. “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”

He swallowed. “I’m…Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” he said slowly. “And this is the hardware store I came to, looking for a power screwdriver.”

Wonderful, another changeling. The Princess had clearly been active in this area. “Alright Loga, that’s good. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I saw you facing the singer without headphones, Honored Paladin, so I took mine off. Then…” he frowned. “I…can’t remember what happened next.”

I nodded. “That’s fine. That’s very good.” I let him go and stood up, turning to the melano. “Take care of him, I need to make a call.”

I could barely keep it together, I was shaking so badly. A cure! Not for everyone, certainly, the singers would have to die, but that was far better than just killing everything. I pulled out my phone, turned off the recording function, and called MC.

“Priority one message for the real MC,” I said before the program had a chance to speak. “From Laura Medina, regarding the screamers.”

“Laura,” MC said within seconds, her voice as smooth as milk chocolate. “What’s going on?”

“I’ll explain later. I don’t have the retinue’s phone numbers. I need you to send them all a message: Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

There was a brief pause. “Done. I also put their numbers in your cell. Er…that okay?”

I chuckled briefly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I hung up, tired beyond belief.

That might be it. That might be the end. Oh, not quite, of course. We’d still need to hunt down the other singers whenever they reappeared, but we had a cure for the screamers. A better one than a bullet to the head. And it was possible…

My phone rang again. I picked it up; it was MC.

“They did it,” she reported. She didn’t say anything else.

“…and?” I asked slowly.

“And nothing. The singers are all dead, but the screamers didn’t go crazy or lose their specs. Was that your aim?”

I broke down crying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 17)

Note that the screamers here are not the same strain as the one the group first encountered. She was a pyrogenesist; she had the power to create fire, and a secondary power to give her a general idea of how it would act. The ones here are pyrokineticists, who can control fire. If they were powerful enough, they could rip heat out of thin air, but they’re not, so they’re limited to controlling open flames. The Composer was happy to provide.

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Scene 16 – Periclum

PERICLUM

ADAM

Monday night, our last class. By a bit of luck, I had one with Derek. And Akane, as I had half expected. I had chosen a seat next to him, while she sat directly behind. I had a feeling they always sat like that.

The last few days were a blur. No new screamers, but MC had contacted me and sent me to a Necessarian shooting range. I spent pretty much every spare minute there; natural talent or not, I didn’t have enough experience with guns. I hadn’t had a chance to exchange more than a few words with Lily, but when I had seen her briefly, she seemed to understand.

As expected, classes were mind-numbingly boring. They probably wouldn’t have been interesting in the first place, but compared to guns and zombies, I was fighting to keep my eyes open. Although too much time at the shooting range probably didn’t help.

All day, people were discussing the screamers. Everyone had seen Butler’s announcement, and I was surprised how many people believed it—nearly everyone, really. Those who disagreed were treated with the same amount of scorn as people who thought the Apollo 11 mission was faked.

The general mood seemed to be apprehensive, but patient. In every class, the students agreed that we’d get more information in time. It was interesting to watch. I had never really seen a population react to a crisis first-hand; my parents were always quick to whisk me away when things went south.

But the current class, a history GE, didn’t even offer that reprieve. The teacher, a surly old dog—what were they called? Canes?—had made it clear from the beginning that he wouldn’t allow off-topic discussion.

On the other, hand, I finally got to meet Lizzy, Laura’s roommate.

She was tall, first off, and easy to approach. She had a guileless smile that invited friendship. She also had bewitching golden eyes and long brown hair that framed her face; it was easy to tell why Derek was smitten.

And he was smitten. That much was obvious. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her for more than ten seconds. For her part, Elizabeth answered his questions warmly, but she didn’t seem as interested in him. Akane pointedly ignored their interactions.

I was just giving up on taking notes and about to start browsing the internet when all three of them—Derek, Akane, and Lizzy—sat up and started looking around. I didn’t hear anything, and it didn’t look like anyone else in the class did either; the professor was still droning on without a care in the world.

I leaned over. “Screamers?” I whispered. Derek nodded. “Then we need to leave.” I glanced at Lizzy. “Should she—”

“No,” he whispered back. Elizabeth looked at us, a questioning frown on her face, but she couldn’t hear us. “She’s not getting involved in this.”

He stood up, packing his things, and Akane followed his example. She just had to pick up her sword, still in its bag, and tuck her notebook under her arm. Derek and I had to wrap up the power cords for our laptops and wrestle them into our backpacks. I also had to pick up my gun case; unlabeled, thankfully. I doubt even this city would turn a blind eye to me toting around enough firearms to arm a platoon.

“Excuse me,” the dog called out in an annoyed tone. I was surprised. I figured he wouldn’t even notice us leaving. “Is there something wrong with my lecture?”

“I’m sorry sir, it’s an emergency.” I noted that Derek hadn’t lied. I had a feeling he avoided it when possible.

The professor sighed and waved his hand, dismissing us. We left before he could change his mind.

Outside, the night was cold, but I had remembered a sweater this time. Laura and Ling met us quickly, from opposite directions.

“We’ll need to hurry,” Laura pointed out. “We’ll need to stash our stuff somewhere when we get there.”

“Actually, that won’t be a problem.”

I turned to see who had spoken.

To my surprise, it was a vampire, one with larger fangs than I had grown to expect and a strange device on her left arm. She was standing next to a parked black van with a red stripe painted horizontally across the side; the emblem of Necessarius, as it was. The door of the van slid open, and four more people tumbled out.

We couldn’t see them very clearly. “Who are you?” I asked with some trepidation. I had a bad feeling.

The vampire cursed and put on thick goggles. “Alex, light.”

The person closest to her began to glow, not brightly, but enough to illuminate the five. It was a woman, albeit a petite and gangly one, dressed in a white t-shirt to emphasize her swirling white tattoos. Those were the source of the glow, and they pulsed gently as she gave a small mock salute.

So this was an angel. Somehow I had expected something more. Her tattoos threw me off, too; I’ve seen phosphorus before, and it was nowhere near as bright as this. I had a feeling Derek was a bit misinformed on exactly how that worked.

“I’m Alex Gabriel,” she introduced herself. Her voice was unique, breathy and deep at the same time. I really didn’t know what to make of it. “Pleased to meet you.”

Next to her, an eight-foot tall giant grunted out “George,” which I assumed was his name. He didn’t have the force of presence Butler did, and his body proportions were a little off—his arms too long and his shoulders too wide. I assumed, then, that his extra mass was the result of a toy, probably an expensive one.

Next to George was what appeared to be an ordinary human, of some kind of Middle-Eastern ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He saluted with a machine gun. “I’m Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters.” He jerked his head to the right, indicating the last person in line. “This is Katherine. Call her Kat.”

It wasn’t hard to tell where the woman earned her nickname. I had seen a few cat kemos running around, but her modifications were the most extensive. She seemed to have fur, an extremely thin, tawny coat. She was filing her claws at first, but when she heard her name she hid the file and retracted her claws.

Her face was the most interesting, however. It was clearly a cat’s face, complete with nose and whiskers. Her teeth were a bit oversized for a feline, and her eyes were jet black and wincing—now that I had experience, I could identify them as the nighteyes of the vampires. Her cat ears had replaced her human ones on the sides of her head, unlike some kemos who just added them on top. I doubt they would do much good up there.

She also held a very large sniper rifle, nearly as tall as she was, resting against her side, with the butt of the gun on the ground. She wasn’t very tall, admittedly, but a five foot long gun is still impressive.

Laura stepped forward. “Is that a railgun? I thought those were still in testing.”

Kat shook her head, and her hands flashed in a pattern I couldn’t decipher.

“She doesn’t talk,” Jarasax apologized. “But she says the railguns still aren’t reliable.” Her hands flashed again. “And that it’s nice to meet you.”

“And I’m Kelly,” the vampire finished in an annoyed tone, scratching the device on her arm. “We’re you’re retinue. Now get in the van and point us towards the zombies.”

It was a tight fit, especially with George and his massive minigun, but we made it. Like I said before, we didn’t have much other than laptops and weapons. Kelly promised she’d keep those in the van.

Derek and Laura provided Jarasax (who was driving) with directions. Akane was quiet as usual, and I couldn’t hear a damn thing, so I was little help. After a minute, Ling poked me gently in the ribs.

“You should get to know these guys,” she advised. “You’ll be fighting with them more than us.”

I frowned. “Just because I don’t have powers…”

She rolled her eyes. “Defense sticks with defense, and offense sticks with offense. We’re offense, we go in and fight. You’re defense, you make sure nothing bad happens. Our tactics are…” she waved her hand. “You know…self-contained. We’re all on the same team, we’re just playing different positions.”

She was right, I guess. But after a moment, I had a question. “Who’s goalie in this metaphor?”

She shrugged. “The truck, I guess?”

I shrugged right back. Worked for me.

Per Ling’s advice, I turned to the closest member of our retinue, the giant George. “So what’s your role here?”

He grinned, revealing enlarged canines, and patted his minigun. “To spread bullets like water.”

Well, nothing wrong with that. The cat was obvious too; even I knew you never turn down a sniper’s help. I was a little worried about the angel, though.

“Isn’t glowing in the dark a little…tame for what we’re facing?” I asked her, trying not to sound confrontational. She just laughed.

“I can do more than that,” she promised. “But I’m not combat, anyway. I’m a scout and tracker.”

“We have people who can literally hear these things from miles away.”

She shook her head. “The screamers, yes. But the Big Boss thinks someone is pulling their strings, and even if not, there’s always use for a tracker.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “I hear you’re good, but you don’t have a lot of experience. Stay with us, you’ll see.”

“We’re here,” Derek declared before I could respond. After a moment, the van pulled to an abrupt stop.

“This is as close as I can get,” Jarasax promised. “Give us a bit of a buffer.”

Now that I was paying attention, I could hear the distinctive screams, maybe a block off. There were a lot of them, mixed with the sound of gunfire and more traditional panicked yelling.

I opened my gun case, ready to head into the fight…which was when I realized I didn’t have a holster or anything. That would limit my options. I bit my lip, trying to decide which one to take.

Kat shoved something in my face. It took me a moment to realize it was a pair of belts, or rather a belt with two holsters for my pistol and SMG, and a back strap for the shotgun and rifle. The belt had a few packs on it where I could store ammo, and the chest thing—bandoleer, I think—had room for shotgun shells.

“Thanks,” I said. I was surprised, pleasantly so.

The sniper nodded, then her fingers moved quickly in a pattern I couldn’t discern.

I turned to George. “What’d she say?”

He shrugged. “Hell if I know. I only met her two days ago. Sax and Kelly are the only ones who understand her.”

Kat looked frustrated, but waved her hand when I leaned forward to ask the two. She mimed readying a weapon (hers was already done, apparently), mimicking the pair. The message was clear: It’s not important, don’t bother them.

Well, that was fine. I belted on the items in question and found they fit perfectly, though I pretty much expected it by that point. My Sica went on my right hip, the Caedes on my left, with the Saint George over my right shoulder and the Athena my left.

I’ll admit, I felt pretty badass by that point, and was ready to take on pretty much anything. The only thing missing was some armor, but the screamers didn’t seem to be able to use weapons anyway, so I wasn’t that worried.

Kelly was the last one out, carrying a short rifle without anything more complicated than iron sights. She handed Alex some sort of headset, which looked like night vision goggles. I remembered something about how angels had special eyes that saw great in the light, but horrible in the dark. I guess she couldn’t do the brightness thing all the time.

“Everyone ready?” Derek asked. We all nodded. “Good. Akane, you’re on point, I’ll be right behind you. Adam, stay close to me. Ling is behind the retinue, watching the rear. Laura, you’re in the middle. Kelly, keep her safe. Let’s move.”

I was impressed. Derek certainly seemed to know what he was doing. Judging from a few things he had said in the past few days, I understood that he and Akane had been taking missions from the job board for years, so I suppose he got practice. It also explained some of why she followed his orders so unquestioningly, but it still didn’t quite sit right with me. But, people grow pretty close after fighting together for years, so maybe there wasn’t anything else to it.

We advanced slowly, ten people a bit too big a group to move with both stealth and speed. But we inched our way towards the screamers with certainty, sure we’d be ready.

We had only gone a little less than half a block—very close to where the screams were originating—when Akane held up her fist, signaling a stop. She pointed emphatically to a nearby wall, but didn’t say anything.

I looked where she was indicating, but only saw a weird piece of graffiti, written in glowing neon ink. It seemed to be a circle with wings.

The rest of the party, however, immediately started cursing violently.

“Calm down,” Derek ordered. “They might be an ally. What court is it?”

“You can’t reason with them,” Alex chided. Derek just glared at her.

“What court is it?”

“Night’s southern autumn,” Kelly replied. Hell if I knew what that meant.

Derek just rolled his eyes. “I know that. I mean what’s the name?”

“Killing Sparrow,” Akane whispered. She blushed when everyone turned to her.

Derek blanched. “That means—”

“Aw, did you finally figure it out? I was hoping to watch you fight.”

It was a female voice, coming from above. I looked up to see a naked Caucasian woman with short brown hair, maybe twenty-five years old, serenely sitting on the edge of the building, about ten feet above the neon symbol. With a small grunt of effort, she leaped down, about twenty feet, and landed without any sign of difficulty.

I wasn’t all that surprised—I had seen stranger things in the four days I had been in Domina—but every single member of our band, even Laura, looked ready to fight.

“Little Derek and Akane…so wonderful to see you again. Did you come to play? Or were you drawn here by that song?”

Kelly cursed and glanced at Derek. “You know her?”

He gulped, and nodded. “May I introduce the Princess of Killing Sparrow, the Maiden of Night’s Southern Autumn.”

The girl in question giggled, causing her breasts to jiggle distractingly. “That’s me!”

I looked around at the tense faces of my companions. “What is—”

Kat immediately made a chopping motion with one hand. Later. Got it. Message received.

“Honored Maiden,” Laura said carefully, bringing her hands away from her gun. “You said something about a song. Would you care to elaborate?”

The girl laughed, a melodic sound, and her chest shook. It was…distracting.

“So polite! Better than this one,” she sidled up to Akane, who was clearly making a conscious effort not to flinch away. “She killed me the second she saw me.”

I got within whisper range of Jarasax. “Is she insane?”

“Yes,” he whispered back without hesitation. “But not like you think. Talk later.”

I shut up. I’d leave this to the people who seemed to know what was going on.

“It wasn’t the loss of the homunculus that upset me,” the girl mused aloud, sliding away from Akane again. “It was that they killed so many of my peataí.” She gave an exaggerated sigh. “But I forgave them, in the end.” She grinned like a madman, revealing teeth like a shark. Looking closer, she also had vampire eyes. “It was soo much fun to watch.”

“The song, Honored Princess,” Laura reminded her gently.

“The amhránaithe are smart,” the girl continued. I wasn’t really sure whether she was answering Laura’s question or not. “They’re looking for me, you know. But those aren’t the ones you’re looking for, is it? No, you’re here for the caointhe.” She grinned widely. “You can hear them, can’t you? Their screams?”

“Why are the amhránaithe looking for you?” Laura prodded. Everyone else was keeping very quiet, though I noticed their hands stayed near their weapons. I decided to follow their example.

The girl just looked at Laura like she was an idiot. “So they can sing to me, of course. And then I will spread the song farther than they could hope.” She tapped her lip, thinking. “You know, I might go looking for one of them. The song does sound interesting.”

“Honored Princess, please, I don’t understand. What is this song you are talking about? Why would you spread it?”

The naked girl gave a great heaving sigh (emphasis on the heaving), as though talking to a troublesome child. “The amhránaithe sing, and anyone who hears them becomes a caoin. But the caointhe only have a flawed understanding of the song, which is why they scream. It’s also why their powers are weaker.”

That brought us all to attention. She was talking about the screamers the entire time? I stepped forward. “What else can you tell us?”

The girl turned to me, her shark-grin wide again, while Laura glared at me from behind her back.

“Well, what do we have here? A new leanbh, untested and untried?” She glanced at my shotgun. “You have at least some congress with Necessarius, I see. Their Saint rides at your shoulder.” Apparently she didn’t realize the retinue were ‘sarians. None of them were wearing their red and black armbands.

“Please, Honored Princess,” Laura said in an apologetic tone, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “That one belongs to Lily.”

The girl’s head snapped around, and her face contorted with rage.

“Lily? Lily? That diabhalta gadaí has already sunk her salach crúba into this one as well? Beidh mé a mharú, gearrtha a géag ó géag.” She looked at me, murder in her eyes. “Beidh mé ag tosú leis an gceann seo.”

She leaped forward, her jaw opened wider than I could have believed possible. But I was ready; I whipped out my pistol quickly and shot her three times in the chest. She staggered, but didn’t fall. I took the opportunity to take careful aim at her forehead, and pulled the trigger again. My Sica barked, and a large chunk of her skull evaporated.

By the time she hit the ground, only Akane had managed to get her weapon out. Everyone else was still fumbling, and Kat nodded in appreciation of my skills. I better be good; I had spent seventy of the last seventy-two hours at a shooting range.

“What language was she speaking, anyway?” I asked. It seemed like a stupid question, but I had so many I didn’t know where to start.

“Irish,” Jarasax answered. Kat’s fingers made a sign. “Bad Irish,” he corrected.

“…why would she be speaking Irish?”

“Because she’s crazy,” Derek replied. “She thinks she’s a faerie from Celtic mythology.”

“Thought,” I corrected reflexively.

“No, thinks. She’s not dead.”

I looked carefully at the naked corpse. It wasn’t breathing. “She sure looks dead.”

He sighed. “It’s a little complicated. She has these things called homunculi, they’re like remote-piloted clones. All the fey have them.”

I blinked. “Fey?”

If Derek was planning to dignify that with a response, I didn’t hear it. Kat’s rifle barked loudly, nearly shattering my eardrums. I turned to see her target; it was a giant dog, about the size of a Great Dane but with the muscle of a pit bull. Despite taking a shot to the skull, it was still moving. Kat fired again, and this time the thing’s head exploded.

“That would be her peataí,” Derek cursed. “More monsters will be coming.”

Everyone had their guns out now, even Laura. She glared at Derek.

“She’s not going to be forgiving this time. What’s up with her and Lily?”

“Silver and gold–hell if I know.” He hemmed in another dog with a barrier; I shot it twice while it was distracted by the sudden appearance of a glowing blue shield.

More started coming, from all directions except to the left, down an alley. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the only direction we didn’t need to go.

A lot of the monsters were various breeds of dog, but there were giant rats and even horribly misshapen humans scattered through as well. All of them were heavily modified, and they all had the solid black eyes of a vampire.

We formed a defensive formation at the mouth of the alley. Right now, there were only a few dozen of the things, and careful shots killed the leaders as they crept forward. But more were coming with every minute. I had a feeling that they were waiting for enough before swarming us.

Wonderful.

Behind the Scenes (scene 16)

Any and all inconsistencies with the Irish grammar shall henceforth be answered by “The fey are crazy, and not actually Irish.”

Oh, and cat kemos are called fels. George is actually an ogre, a giant with the cannibalism buff.

Scene 15 – Sicarios

SICARIOS

SIMON

My name is Simon Lancaster, and I am a sibriex, a type of demon. Well, technically, anyway. The fact that my skills with the toy maker are essentially nonexistent make it difficult to advance in the flesh-warpers. I’ve got some nice horns and a decent job for my membership, but very little else.

My twin sister, Seena, sat next to me, though I could barely see her. She had a black skin cosmo—completely black, like a pool of ink. Combined with her naturally black hair, she was nearly invisible in the dim auditorium.

By comparison, I was…gaudy. Yes, that’s a neutral term. I had mottled purple skin and green hair; both very strange colors for most demons to be, but as a sibriex, it was downright bland. Nine hells, my horns weren’t even a weird shape, just sharp little nubs sprouting out of my forehead.

Seen kept adjusting the daygoggles covering her eyes nervously, so I elbowed her gently in the gut. “Stop fidgeting,” I muttered.

“I can’t help it,” she whispered back. “They itch.”

I sighed and gave up. She was always like this. When we were younger, she had been forced to get a pretty pricey buff to remove her acne, since she would not stop scratching, to the point that her face had been covered in scars.

It was nine in the morning, the first Monday of the school year. Normally, it would be a fun environment, as people were still enjoying meeting new people and seeing old friends.

But instead, the mood was tense and hushed. The lecture hall was divided into clumps of students, seated as close to their friends and as far from strangers as possible. Even the maintenance man installing speakers in the corner seemed subdued. Everyone was whispering, glancing around as if there was a bomb threat hanging over their heads.

There had been a screamer attack on Saturday.

Details were sparse, but there were nearly two hundred causalities. Worse yet, it had happened just outside the Springfield Wall. If the Paladins hadn’t gotten there in time, everyone in the school could have been killed.

But then, the Paladins had come. A small group had managed to annihilate an entire horde.

There were worse things coming, everyone knew that. But at least we had some sort of defense. I don’t know about everyone else, but it definitely made me feel better.

“This seat taken?”

I glanced up to see Derek grinning at me, hand on the seat next to me.

I blinked. “Derek? You—” I managed to get control of my tongue. “No, of course not. Go right ahead.”

He put his bag under the seat and sat down, Akane sliding into place next to him. “Where’s David?”

“Dead,” I replied, glancing at Seena. She was wide-eyed and a little pale in the face, but that wasn’t surprising when Derek was around. In her defense, I don’t think anyone expected him to be up this early. I turned back to the blond man. “Shootout with some vampires. Not sure what he did to piss them off.”

Derek winced. “Ooh. Tough luck.”

“Don’t you guys have a job or something at night?” I asked, turning the subject back to the pair.

I saw something in his eyes, a brief look of worry and guilt. It surprised me, but before I could figure out what it was, it had disappeared again. “Oh, right, the missions. Thought you meant something else.” He shrugged. “We decided to try and get some sane hours. Wake up at normal times, do work between classes.”

I grinned. “No more midnight strolls through Dying Jade territory, huh, Akane?” I patted her on the knee.

Suddenly she had my hand in an iron grip, with a knife poised to strike. I hadn’t even seen her move.

“Sorry,” she whispered after a moment. She let me go, blushing.

I frowned as I rubbed my hand. Was she still like that around me? I thought she had gotten over that when she rescued me from the Queen of Dying Jade’s hounds.

It was probably the touch that did it. It probably reminded her of our disastrous date. I could understand why that, at least, would make her…twitchy around me.

Derek coughed lightly. “So, ah, Seena…when did you get the nighteyes?”

My sister blushed, but when she spoke her voice was strong. “A few days ago. I joined the Mals. Was recruited by Abigor himself, actually.”

Akane frowned. “Baal’s general?”

Seena shook her head. “Not anymore. A Night-caste angel assassinated Baal about a week ago. Now Abigor, Bileth, and Zepar are in charge.”

“I’m going to be honest, those names mean little to me,” Derek admitted. “But I met Baal once. He was…” he searched for the right words. “Not charismatic. Present.”

I nodded. That was a good way to describe the Duke of Maladomini. I had met him three years ago, but I still remembered the crushing weight of his presence. It had been like an ant before an elephant. I had assumed he hadn’t noticed me, but apparently he made an impression, since one of the first things his generals did once he died was send an invitation to both myself and my sister to join. Obviously, I had declined.

“It’s always been a relatively small subculture,” Derek noted. “You think the it can survive without him?”

Seena shrugged. “That’s why they recruited people like me. They need fresh blood. Anyone, young, strong, and willing to learn will do.”

“First assignment?” Akane asked, just above a whisper.

“Not yet,” Seena admitted. She frowned. “It’s so frustrating! I’ve been doing missions for years, but none of that counts as far as they’re concerned.”

“Well,” I said slowly. “You have to admit they’re pretty different skillsets…”

She waved her hand impatiently. “Find the target, remove it. What’s the difference?”

“There’s are a number of important difference between slaying a dangerous monster and assassinating an individual,” Derek said calmly. But there was a fire in his eyes I didn’t want to test. “I hope you understand that.”

Seena looked like she had been slapped. “I…yes. Of course.”

The blond-haired man pulled his laptop out from his bag, still beneath his feet. “And I hope you understand the implications of a subculture founded by the Lord of Murder.”

Seena swallowed. “Ah…I know what Mals do…”

“Then hopefully Baal’s generals will be as wise in choosing their targets as he was,” Derek said in a tone of finality. He turned his attention to the laptop. The conversation was clearly over.

However, my sister looked like she wanted to cry. I had never been good at consoling her, but luckily Akane’s antipathy to me didn’t extend to my sister. She jumped over the seats to the row behind us, walked over to the newly made vampire, slipped into the seat next to her, and started whispering something I couldn’t hear.

I turned to ask what Derek thought about all this—he wasn’t the type to intentionally hurt anyone’s feelings—but I found I couldn’t speak. Stunned isn’t quite the right word. I was just…the words died in my mouth.

He was on Fundie, browsing the internet. Nothing strange about that.

However, of the dozen or so windows and tabs he had open, every single one of them related directly to the three generals of Maladomini.

I found myself desperately hoping they knew what they were doing.

Behind the Scene (scene 15)

I was originally going to call the Duke of Maladomini Baalzebul (after his Dungeons and Dragons counterpart), and his followers Zebulans. But it just didn’t work. Baal and Mals just sounds better.

Scene 14 – Necessarius

NECESSARIUS

KELLY

My name is Drakela Sanguinas. No, it’s not my birth name, but it is my legal name. Better than the one my father gave me, at any rate. Mostly people call me Kelly or Kel.

I was sitting in South Central’s head Necessarius office, waiting for my boss to finish reading my report. It was all for show, of course; he had already read it.

My boss was a lupe, a wolf kemo. He had thick hair—not fur—covering his body and dexterous silver ears poking out of his graying hair. He looked about sixty but carried himself like a thirty year old, which probably put him at forty five or so. The lupes respected age.

He had enlarged canines and jaw muscles that reminded me uncomfortably of the biters we had just cleared out. But his were less noticeable, and probably more useful in the long run. The screamers had massive horse-teeth that crowded their mouths and looked useless for anything but biting.

It was the claws that made me sweat, though. Six inches long and the highest quality steel, bonded straight to his enhanced finger bones. I had seen claws like those disembowel friends of mine without much difficulty, and I had no doubt this man had done so more than once.

My boss wasn’t just any lupe; he was an ex-Rahu, a warrior wolf. His kind had hunted mine for a long, long time, tracking us by the smell of blood and cold flesh.

I was hardly innocent either, of course. I was an ex-Belian, and had killed my fair share of lupes and canes and whatnot. I even managed to take out an angel once. A full-born daybreaker, not some crazy kid who took the glow on a whim.

We all had sins. But we were with Necessarius now. Nothing we did before we joined mattered, and nothing anyone else did before we joined mattered either. Set aside your differences and fight for the common good. Because it was necessary.

“You worked with the girl, the black-haired one?”

“There were two black-haired ones, sir,” I clarified. “The Asian went inside with the other Asian—she had a blonde cosmo—and the man.”

“But the one who stayed outside, you followed her orders?”

I shrugged. “She gave good orders. And she sure as blood was doing a better job of it than I was.”

“Hm.” He didn’t say anything else, just tapped through his tablet. It was made specifically to withstand his claws.

“It says here they caught one alive. That correct?”

“Yes, a small female. The little blonde Asian trapped her in some sort of rock handcuffs.”

“Interesting. You actually saw her use this power?”

“Yes sir. She did it right in front of me, pulled up big chunks of asphalt like it was clay.”

He finally put the tablet down. “Describe her to me.”

“Uh…short, blonde…Asian…looked pretty athletic.”

“Full description, please. Spare nothing.”

I sighed. “Fine. Just an inch over five feet. Well-toned, definitely plays sports; probably soccer, judging by her kicks. She was wearing a good, strong deodorant, but she was sweating less than you’d expect in that situation. She wasn’t as anxious or worried as I would have thought. She has problems with authority. She didn’t like us, and she questioned her boss’s orders every which way.”

He waved his hand, indicating for me to continue.

“Blond—natural, I think—and blue eyes. Strong jaw, wiry muscles. Looks like a rat hunter, but moves like a soldier. He has the voice of command; he gave me an order and I obeyed. He’s protective, especially of the girls he came with, but of everyone else too. He smelled afraid, but he didn’t hesitate. He trusts himself, and he trusts his girls. At least the one with the sword and the one he left with us.”

“Start with the girl with the sword,” my captain advised.

“About average height; maybe a little shorter, but she looked taller compared to soccer-girl. She had a katana, and she knew how to use it. Black hair is decorated with beads and a few other things I didn’t understand, and she had it in a ponytail to keep it out of her face. Despite that, she’s a soldier. She smelled like death, and she followed orders without question.

“The other one is a strategist. Face like a knife. Heart like a knife, too; she was ready to make hard decisions, though she didn’t really need to. She coordinated us well, and anticipated the enemy easily. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive when you’re dealing with zombies, but they were unpredictable. And she…predicted them.”

I paused for a moment. “What did she smell like?” my captain prompted. It would have sounded a little creepy coming from anyone else, but when you’ve got a nose like us, that’s no stranger than asking what color her hair was.

I shrugged. “Lilacs. Real ones, I think. Or a really good perfume. She wasn’t really sweating. I feel like it wasn’t her first command. She probably just plays too many video games.”

“Excellent work, corporal. There may be a promotion in this for you.”

I frowned. “Sir?”

“The Big Boss wanted to field test his new toy,” he explained. “And you were quite helpful.”

I felt my heart drop out of my chest. “Sir, if he released those screamers—”

The lupe waved his hand airily. “Not the screamers, girl. The Paladins.” He gave me a toothy grin. “He wanted to test the Paladins against the screamers. And to see how they’d work with Necessarians in the field.” He nodded sagely. “I’d say you did a great job.”

I swallowed. “Thank…you, sir. I think.”

“Of course,” he mused, idly scratching his chin, “the fact that most of your direct superiors were killed doesn’t hurt your chances either.”

I immediately felt better. These were circumstances I understood. “They did their best, sir, but we were all caught by surprise.”

“Of course, of course.” He made a note on his tablet. “Well, promotion or not, you’ll need to pick your team.”

I blinked. “Sir?”

“You’re going to be attached to the Paladins,” he explained in the most infuriatingly off-hand way possible. “If nothing else, provide transportation.”

I nearly jumped out of my seat. “But, sir, I—”

He waved his hand. “You’re dismissed. I want those squad assignments before you leave today. Five slots.”

I recognized I wouldn’t make any more headway, so I nodded and left his office without a word.

One of my friends, Specialist Alex Gabriel, stood leaning against the wall. He smiled at me. “Problems with the old wolf?”

“He can hear you,” I grumbled. I stomped off, and Alex followed.

He was definitely going to be on this team I had to assemble, no question. In addition to being a close friend, his talents were invaluable.

Of course, I use the male pronoun for the sake of convenience. As a full-born daybreaker, Alex was completely asexual. He was tall, thin, and completely hairless, covered in dimly glowing tattoos in strange, circular patterns, largely revealed by the white t-shirt he wore. Most of them terminated on his hands, where he had leather gloves with small, high-quality magnifying glasses in the palms. When he concentrated, he could focus the glow from the sunspots on his palms to devastating effect—especially against vampires. At his sides were matching long knives made out of mirrored steel.

“I need a team,” I said bluntly once we were out of earshot.

“On the books?”

“I have no idea,” I admitted. “But it’s sanctioned. We’re the Paladins’ retinue.”

“Cool,” he chirped happily. Even his voice was asexual, being both husky and soft at the same time. “Want me to assemble to old team?”

“No. We need ranged attackers. We’re going to go against screamers, and I don’t want to get within reach.”

He nodded in agreement. “I’ll start with Nevin.”

“Nevin died a couple days ago. Sliced to ribbons by something with claws.” I shrugged. “Probably a monster, but maybe a kemo.”

The angel winced. “Ooh. He was the best. Well, there are some alternatives. How many we need?”

“Five total. Think you can make that happen?”

He paused, thinking. “Yeah, I can. When do we need to be ready?”

“The old wolf wants the list by noon. I want to be ready for a quick training run in an hour. Need to know we can work together.”

He grinned, revealing perfect teeth. “Consider it done, boss.”

I sighed. It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 14)

Yes, this is the vampire Derek yelled at in scene 12. You’ll meet her team later.

Oh, and yes, “Drakela” is the feminine form of Dracula. As you might expect, a lot of vampires have variants of the name. It’s an English bastardization, though. The actual Romanian version sounds too similar to Dracula to be useful.