Scene 23 – Spiro

SPIRO

LING

I watched Akane with interest. She had invited me to her kendo class apparently just to be polite, but I was genuinely excited. I had never seen a live match before—anime hardly counted. I doubted those were entirely accurate.

It took me a few minutes to realize that this was not, in fact, kendo.

Kendo is a sport based on sword fighting. It involves similar motions, but requires strikes be called by the attacker before they hit, only a few limited strikes are allowed, and usually each match is only three points. Both participants use bamboo swords, which are hardly dangerous, but they wear heavy padding regardless.

This was not kendo.

This was a duel that happened to use wooden swords rather than real ones.

The second the bell was struck, Akane leaped forward at lightning speed, drawing her sword in the same motion. I thought she might be using her ability, but if so her opponent didn’t notice the discrepancy, and managed to jink backwards, dodging her horizontal slash by a hair.

Her opponent—a South American baseline—knocked her off balance, stepped inside her reach and brought his sword down on her head in a two-handed strike.

If it had hit, it could have killed her.

But Akane simply stepped to the side, dodging by a hand’s breadth, and jabbed her opponent in the side with stiff fingers, knocking the wind out of him. I expected the teacher to call her on this, but he didn’t.

Her competitor tried to recover by sliding away from her strike, but he had overextended himself, and he was still recovering from her jab. With her foot, she swept his legs out from under him, landing him heavily on his back, and pointed her sword at his throat.

He sighed. “I yield.”

The teacher rung the bell. “Akane wins.”

“Not trying,” she whispered, only barely audible.

Her instructor frowned. “Yes, I noticed that.” He glared at the loser, still on the floor. “Akane’s a better fighter than you, Flynn. If you’re afraid of hurting her, you’ll never have a chance.”

I think he’s more afraid he won’t be able to get into her pants,” another student called out. The class laughed as Akane blushed scarlet and rushed back over to where I was sitting, grabbing her real sword—which I had been holding onto—apparently for a sense of comfort. Flynn, still struggling to his feet, also looked embarrassed, but didn’t deny anything.

I raised an eyebrow at her. “You’re not actually sleeping with him, right?”

She glared at me with such hate I immediately dropped the subject.

Yeah, she only had eyes for Derek.

She was wearing a loose white sparring suit, called either a gi or a ji, I can’t recall. It gave her a wide range of motion, perfect for a fight. It was stained with sweat; Flynn was her last fight, not her first, and she gulped down water from the bottle I handed her.

The beads in her hair clicked together as she moved. I hadn’t really looked closely before, but they were seven white plastic beads tied to a string of leather, which was in turn tied to her ponytail. What surprised me more was the blue ribbon I saw wound lightly in the ponytail itself. I hadn’t noticed that before.

“That’s a nice ribbon,” I said, once she put the bottle down. “Is it new?”

She reached up to feel the item in question, and smiled. “No, I’ve had it for over seven years now.” She shrugged. “It’s just hard to spot most of the time.”

She was speaking quietly, as if she didn’t want to be overheard. She was warming up to me, but her classmates had no such luck. She still didn’t speak a single word more than necessary to them. Considering how many of them wanted to get her into bed, that was probably a good idea.

It had been three days since the screamers attacked and we met the retinue. Well, four. We started on Monday night, but didn’t finish until Tuesday morning. There hadn’t been any incidents since, but we had enough trouble already. Nearly a thousand people had been turned; I didn’t know the exact numbers, but over five hundred, at the very least. Necessarius had captured over a hundred, in the hopes that they could be cured, but that still meant hundreds of people were dead. Not to mention the massive property damage. The ‘Incinerated Intersection’ wasn’t going to contribute anything for quite a while.

The fey had disappeared, to the surprise of no one, but Laura and Derek seemed to be worried about her for some reason. I still didn’t get how the singers worked, but apparently they were afraid one of them could infect all of the homunculi at once, or something. Who knows.

More interesting to me was the changeling, Loga. He seemed like us—a single power, the ability to hear screamers, immunity to infection…it brought up some interesting questions. No one could figure out why he had been cured when no one else had. Too many possible answers, I guess.

Speaking of screamers, I was worried that even if more did attack, we wouldn’t hear them. With a hundred captured screamers constantly droning in the background, it was a miracle we could even sleep at night. At least Butler had followed our advice and grouped them together, so hopefully we’d be able to distinguish new ones. But I had my doubts.

Some of Congress were crying out for a vote of no confidence against Butler, because he hadn’t been able to prevent the attacks, but they were in the deep minority, and were getting shouted down. The fact that Derek and Laura had apparently personally saved and fought beside one of the senators from South Central didn’t hurt at all.

My thoughts were interrupted when Akane’s opponent, Flynn, sat down on my other side, trying not to make it too obvious that he was watching her. She ignored him, but I held out my hand to him.

“I’m Ling Yu,” I introduced myself warmly. “Akane’s roommate.”

“Flynn Neilson,” he returned, shaking my hand. He had a strong grip, probably the result of years of these mock-duels. “What brings you to class today, Ling?”

“I had some free time, and Akane invited me.” I shrugged. “Seemed fun.”

“You an athlete too?”

“Soccer, mostly. Got in on scholarship, but that might be drying up.” Games were getting canceled left and right with the threat of screamers. They hadn’t actually attacked anything like that yet, of course, but it was a logical assumption. At least, that’s what Laura said. Luckily, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get kicked out of school as long as I was a Paladin.

He whistled softly. “Yeah. Those zombies are a real problem.” He shook his head. “Hopefully, Butler will find and stop the Composer soon.”

I frowned. “Who?”

“It’s all over the place,” he said nonchalantly. “Has been since the burners. The zombie lord, right? There has to be one. They’re calling him the Composer. You know, in relation to the singers.”

I glanced at Akane. She seemed as surprised as me.

“I think it started right after Butler released the report on Triple I,” he mused, using the easy term for the Incinerated Intersection Incident. Then he nodded to himself. “Yeah, that was it. Somebody on one of my message boards started using it, and it caught on.” He shrugged. “You know how this kind of thing works.”

He was right; memes were a part of Domina culture almost as much as the toy maker. This city had been built on three things: Crime, the toy maker, and the internet. They were the machines that kept the city running. The names for most of the subcultures had originated in much the same way.

But something about it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, though. No, wait, that was it: There was already a nickname floating around. Flynn had even mentioned it—’zombie lord.’ ZL. So why did the new one suddenly become so popular?

I was thinking about it too much, and our new friend was waiting patiently for a response. He seemed nice enough.

“I hadn’t heard that one,” I admitted. “But I’ve been so busy these past few days, I’ve barely been able to check my mail.”

Speaking of which, Akane’s phone buzzed. Just a text message; with singers around, people were avoiding actually listening to things like the plague. At least the recordings of singers…well, singing, didn’t have any effect. Otherwise some asshole would probably have already managed to turn half the city.

Which was odd, the more I thought of it. Why didn’t this…Composer just attach a singer to some big speakers? Now, it made sense, since we were warned and prepared to some extent, but the tactic would have been simple before Triple I.

Very little of what this person was doing made any sense. Why was he only launching one attack every few days? Why didn’t he start with a huge attack? It made no sense.

Akane interrupted my musings simply by gathering up her stuff and standing. She replaced her wooden sword on the rack as I was scrambling to her feet.

“Derek,” she said by way of explanation. Flynn was still nearby. “Monster hunt.”

“Uh…” was that code for screamers? I didn’t hear any.

“You can stay.” She shrugged. “Or come.”

Okay, so just a monster hunt. “But is it all right for you to just leave class like this?”

Flynn cut into the conversation smoothly. “We’re allowed to leave once we’ve fought at least once.” I had watched him fight twice, including the one with Akane. She had fought four times.

She nodded, and headed for the door. I followed.

It took him a minute, but as I half expected, Flynn caught up with us quickly once we were outside. He looked hesitant.

“Um…” it was almost endearing, really. He was clearly smitten with her. No wonder he didn’t even bother hiding it. “I know you’re going to meet with Derek, but…” he shifted his feet. “…can I come?” He made a slight verbal backspace. “It’s just that I’ve never been good at fighting monsters, and I was thinking maybe I could get some pointers from watching you fight. You two fight, I mean. Three, I guess, if Ling will too.” He shut his mouth with some effort.

I glanced at Akane and was surprised to find that she was blushing slightly. She leaned forward and whispered into my ear. I nearly jumped in surprise, but reported it faithfully anyway:

“You can come, but you’re not allowed to tell anyone what you see.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 23)

I am going on vacation this weekend, and I’m not completely certain I will have internet. I’ve already uploaded scene 24, so it should update normally. But if it doesn’t, I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to fix it. I’ll be back Tuesday morning though, so any problems will be fixed then.

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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.

Scene 21 – Futurum

FUTURUM

SEENA

My name is Seena Lancaster. I am a Mal, a vampire assassin. Technically. My current duties are…complicated. Still, I was personally recruited by Abigor the Bellows. He entrusted me with restoring some small bit of glory to the subculture, and I felt honored by the privilege.

My friends, however, felt otherwise.

“I still can’t believe you joined a subculture without telling me,” Delphie muttered, as she set her drink down. She was a skinny little slip of a girl with a long braid of brown hair. “Didn’t you say you were thinking about going with your brother?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know…thinking about flesh crafting makes me nauseous. No offense, Jelena.”

The Glasyan just grinned and brushed her black and white streaked hair out of her face. “None taken. I’m just glad you joined a vampire culture. Weren’t the angels trying to recruit you for a little while?”

I blinked. If so, that was news to me.

Pam, my roommate, finally spoke up. “Aren’t any of you freaks the least bit worried that she joined assassins?

Pam was baseline—completely so, as far as I could tell. We had only met on Sunday, so I had only known her for about five days now, but she was a bit…critical of others. She wasn’t very pretty, which might be part of the problem. She wasn’t exactly ugly, but average was something of the exception in a city where you could buy a prettier face for a couple week’s allowance.

Jelena grinned even more broadly. “C’mon, baseline. It’s the Mals. They just kill racists and angels.”

Pam glared back. “Yeah right. Because assassins are so well-known for their honor and dignity.”

Before I could retort, Delphie spoke up. “She’s got a point, actually…” When she noticed my glare she winced. “I mean, I’m sure they’re as upright as they’ve always claimed to be. But without Baal leading them, maybe that will change.”

It was surprising to hear her have an opinion on the matter. Normally, she ignored politics. I guess she really was trying to turn over a new leaf.

“Okay, see, that’s a good point,” Jelena nodded. “Give the mouse some cheese.”

Delphie glared daggers at the Glasyan, but didn’t retort. Wise move.

I rubbed my forehead in consternation. “Yes, the subculture is going through some tough times right now. But I think Abigor and the others know what they’re doing.”

Pam tried to steer the subject onto slightly safer grounds. “You have a brother, right? What’s he have to say about it?”

Ugh. Simon. I waved my hand. “He’s overprotective. As usual.”

“He’s just worried,” Delphie reminded me. She slurped some of her fruity drink through the straw before speaking again. “You’re all he has, really. Besides, he’s usually right. Remember when you were dating Nikoli?”

I groaned. “Don’t bring him up again, please…”

“But Simon was right about him, wasn’t he?”

Pam spoke up. “You going to let the rest of us know who this guy is?”

“Yeah,” Jelena added, frowning. “I don’t remember this either.”

“It was when you were on vacation a couple years back.” I rubbed my forehead. “You’ve probably heard of him, actually. These days, he’s better known as Amduscias.”

Jelena nearly choked.

I winced. “It’s not that bad…”

Pam raised an eyebrow. “The name’s not familiar to me.”

The Glasyan got her breathing under control. “He’s…the Traitor Hawk. He betrayed Soaring Eagle and joined Tiamat.” She tweaked one of her horns with her fingers. “White night Seena, you dated the Reconciler of Foes?”

I threw up my hands. “No! I dated an ave named Nikoli! He seemed nice enough—he’s always had a silver tongue.” I shook my head. “Besides, he was an ave. I felt sorry for him.”

“Yeah, well, he’s a lace now,” Delphie said a little bitterly. She hadn’t been enamored of him in the first place, and after he joined the lizards it just got worse. “And one of the worst of the lot.”

“How’d you even get out of that relationship alive?” Jelena asked, tapping the table with her claws. Well, they were more like long fingernails. “Amduscias has a reputation for being patient, but he does not let go once he’s got his talons in you.”

“Oh. Yeah. He…decided I wasn’t worth the trouble.”

Jelena’s eyes narrowed. “Seena. What did you do?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing! Much…”

Delphie looked at me sideways. “Wait, I seem to remember you telling me you shot him in the leg. But—”

“Wouldn’t have worked,” Jelena noted. “If she was lucky, that would have just pissed him off. More likely, he’d like her spirit and start trying to recruit her for real.”

Thankfully, Lily chose that moment to walk up to the table. “Anything else I can get for you guys?”

“Yes!” I said immediately. “Uh…I want…”

My friends wouldn’t let me go that easily. Delphie leaned forward angrily. “Don’t try and change the subject. What did you do? What’s so bad you had to lie to me about it?”

Unfortunately, Lily quickly took the hint and scooted away. Unless Lizzy decided to show up after all (I had invited her, but she had said she was busy), I was out of distractions.

I sighed. “Fine. I made a deal with the Queen-Mother of Dayborn Light.”

Pam looked like I had just shot her. “You WHAT?

I winced. “Look, its really not that bad…”

“Not that bad??” she shrieked. “You made a deal with a fey, and you think its not that bad??” She started pulling at her hair. “Lord, I need a new roommate. Is there any way I can request a minimum IQ on a roommate form?”

“The fey aren’t…” Jelena started, then stopped herself. “No, actually, I think the baseline’s got the right idea. You’re a fig-witted idiot, Seena.”

I scoffed. “Oh, come on. The Glasyans make deals with the fey all the time.”

“Yeah, as a group. Everyone working together, making sure the deal is as fair as possible, checking for loopholes and making sure we don’t innocently give them the last piece for a nuke or whatever. But one on one?” She shook her head. “You got cheated, bad. I don’t care if all you gave her was a goddamned bottle cap—it wasn’t worth what you got in return.”

There was a long pause. The only sound was Pam slowly getting her breathing under control through what looked like some sort of meditation exercise. I expected her to say something, but it was actually Delphie who first broke the silence.

“So what did you give her?” she asked as she finished off her drink. “I’m assuming it was a bit bigger than a bottle cap.”

I looked away. “…it’s not important.”

Jelena chuckled. “It’s like you don’t know us at all. Obviously that’s not going to stop us from asking.”

“Just tell us now,” Delphie recommended tiredly. “Save us all some time.”

I shrugged awkwardly. “I gave her an egg.”

Pam raised an eyebrow. “An egg? Like a chicken egg? No, it was probably some rare monster egg.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” I lied, nodding.

I might have convinced Delphie and Pam, but Jelena saw right through me. “What kind of egg, Seena?”

I winced. “Look, you need to understand, I was in a very tight spot with Nikoli. He was already joining up with Tiamat, and it was clear he wasn’t going to let me go—”

“Get on with it,” Pam ordered. “What kind of egg?”

I twiddled my fingers. “Ah…mine.”

Everyone stared.

Pam was the one who managed to get the words out. “As in…under the proper conditions, it could grow into your child.”

I nodded.

Delphie opened her mouth, but no sound came out, and soon closed it again.

Pam’s stare could have melted steel. “You gave a fey your unborn child.”

I winced. “Not…really. I mean…most eggs don’t ever grow, right?”

Jelena held out her hand to my roommate, palm up. “Pam, give me your gun. I’m going to do her a favor and shoot her in the head.”

Pam placed her head in her hands. Although it was slightly muffled, I clearly heard her say “Don’t tempt me.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 21)

“Lace” is derived from lacertilia, the name for the reptilian suborder that lizards belong to. The subculture (technically it’s a culture, because the kemos are a superculture, but don’t worry about that), however, includes any scaled kemo, such as snakes, lizards, alligators/crocodiles, and dragons.

Scene 20 – Custodis

CUSTODIS

KELLY

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Jarasax clicked through something on his phone. “I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”

I raised an eyebrow from the passenger seat right next to him. “Over a hundred people screaming and who knows how many dead, and you think it went well?”

From behind me, in the back of the van, George grunted. “I think he meant the Paladins held themselves together, all things considered.” He checked his minigun briefly, then threw a blanket over it and pushed it into a corner. “And I have to agree. It could have gone much worse.”

Kat’s fingers flashed, and I nodded.

“See, that’s what I meant. The kids did great, but there were some stupid mistakes. Medina should have stayed with us, for one thing. The strategist shouldn’t be on the front lines.”

The fel’s fingers twitched.

Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Don’t encourage her, Kat.” He waved away our complaints as he pocketed his phone. “Medina knew what she was doing, and it all worked out in the end.”

“And we got some interesting intelligence out of it,” Alex noted as he pared his fingernails with one of his mirrored dayknives. “That changeling boy might be able to help us win this thing before it even really starts.”

George rubbed his forehead. “Someone needs to explain that to me. I keep hearing about this kid, but no one has had time to tell me why he’s so damn important.”

“He was a screamer,” the angel explained. “Then Medina killed the singer that turned him, and suddenly he wasn’t.”

The ogre pursed his lips. “Ah,” he said quietly.

“Yeah,” Alex said with a grin. “’Ah.’ Quite important indeed.”

I pulled my ratburger out of the lunch box at my feet and handed Jarasax his sandwich. “I heard some interesting rumors about that. One of Doctor Henry’s aides mentioned that the changeling had fire powers now.”

Kat’s fingers twitched briefly.

“Right,” I apologized around a bite of my burger. “Sorry, I forgot.” I swallowed. “Belman Henry is one of Clarke’s aides. He was put in charge of the changeling.”

George grinned. “That’s amazing. And useful. Another Paladin will help a lot.”

If its true,” Alex noted. His knife disappeared with a flick of his wrist as he finished his nails, and it took me a second to spot it in its sheath on his hip. “This friend of a friend rumor is hardly trustworthy.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I put in. I noticed Jarasax glaring at my burger in something like disgust. “Something wrong?”

The dark-skinned changeling turned away and shook his head. “Sorry. Those seaweed buns just make my stomach churn.”

I snorted, almost choking on the bite. I made sure to swallow before speaking. “My salary isn’t good enough to splurge. I can afford my fixer, or wheat bread. Not both.”

Kat signed something again.

Sax cocked his head to the side, frowning. “Was that sarcasm? I can’t tell.”

A few more finger flashes.

He grunted and turned back to the wheel, as if he actually had to pay attention to it while we were parked. “No need to be rude.”

“I really need to learn sign language,” George muttered from the back. “I keep missing out on Kat’s jokes.”

I resisted the urge to laugh; I didn’t want to choke again. “You’re not missing out on much, trust me.”

The fel growled a little under her throat and opened the van door to leave.

“Hey, don’t be like that! I was just joking.”

She rolled her eyes—its hard to notice with all-black nighteyes, but still—and signed something.

“Oh. Sorry, I forgot.” I turned to my angelic friend. “Alex, you want to go with her to pick up that new game?”

He shrugged. “I’d be happy to, but I don’t speak sign language. Wouldn’t one of you two be better?”

“She just needs someone to ask the guy to get it from the back. And we’re eating.”

The angel leaped deftly out of the van. “Fine by me. Let’s go, Kat.”

Once they were out of sight around the corner, George raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”

I frowned as I finished my burger. “What do you mean?”

“I meant, what was that about?”

“I know. What are you asking about?”

“I’m asking about Kat. Why’d she leave all of a sudden?”

I was beginning to get annoyed. “She’s gonna buy a video game. Weren’t you listening?”

The ogre rubbed his forehead. “Yes, I…why did she choose right now to go get it?”

Ah. That was a question I understood. “Some of the more popular vampire games come out at noon. You know, a midnight release kind of thing.” I glanced at my watch. “She’s a couple hours early, but the line is probably long.”

He nodded and settled back. “Right, that makes sense. I just lost track of time. Still having trouble getting used to the Insomniac gland.”

Jarasax perked up. “When did you get yours? Before you got this assignment, right?”

“A couple weeks ago,” the giant confirmed. “Still not quite used to not sleeping.” He frowned. “Which reminds me…I’ve been meaning to ask—”

“I don’t have the gland,” Jarasax interrupted in a blunt tone. “I’m not going to break my oath over eight hours of sleep.”

“Hey now,” George said apologetically. “No need to get worked up. I know you guys don’t use toys. Just curious how you’ve managed to stay up with us, that’s all.”

The changeling pulled an empty drink bottle out of the recycling bin situated in the center of the floor. “Insomniac energy drink,” he explained. “Pretty much does the same thing as the gland, just as a drink.” He shrugged. “Less effective, and more expensive in the long run, but it works well enough.”

“It also melts your brain if you stop taking it,” I noted, scratching the fixer on my arm.

Sax grinned a little weakly. “Well, yeah. They’re not having much success marketing it to non-changelings.”

“Seems a weird way to do it,” George said, taking the bottle from Sax’s hands and looking at it a little closer. “Wouldn’t pills be easier?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “Right now, if you want to take it as a pill, you have to take one every hour. They can do it as a shot, though, but they were trying to market it to a wide base, and most people don’t like needles.”

“I hear they’re gonna start selling the shots,” Jarasax cut in. “Alongside the drinks, I mean. See which one sells better. Apparently some kid drank some of his dad’s or whatever, so there’s been a bit of backlash.”

George shivered. “Chems freak me out. Why do you people do that to yourselves?”

I glared daggers at him. “Hey. Some of us are reformed.”

He winced. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s just, I can’t understand doing anything that would screw with my brain chemistry.”

I sighed and decided he deserved a real answer. “Well, the side effects are minimal at first. Even when full-addiction sets in and everything starts going sideways, the benefits can still outweigh the costs.”

The giant waved his hand. “I know, I know. I just can’t imagine ever wanting to…” he shrugged. “It’s a preferences thing, I guess.”

I bit my tongue to keep from snapping at him. Preferences? He thinks people get addicted to every chem on the market because they like it?

Thankfully, before I could lose my head, Jarasax noticed my consternation. “George, why don’t you go take a walk? Check in on Kat and stuff?”

The giant glanced between us and looked like he was going to say something, but then just shrugged and crawled to the van door. He grabbed his claymore and belted it to his back before walking away; it was useless against screamers for obvious reasons, but it was a great deterrent against more mundane muggers who might think he was an easy mark otherwise.

The Middle-Eastern changeling finished up the last of his sandwich and eyed me warily. “You gonna be all right there, boss?”

I frowned. “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”

He nodded to my hand. “I was afraid you might do something…unwise.”

I slowly managed to release my death-grip on my pistol. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was just holding it for…comfort.”

“Comfort,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, it makes me feel better.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, I know George has been pushing your buttons for the last few days, but don’t let it get to you. He means well, and he’s a good soldier.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. I read his file and everything I’m just…” I waved my hand weakly, at a loss for words.

“…not used to command?” he finished politely.

I nodded. “Yeah. We’re specialists. Grunt commandos. You’re in your element, but I’m not supposed to be in charge. My officer credentials consist solely of surviving the biter attack and saluting Huntsman when he shouted at me.”

He shrugged. “You’re the best we’ve got, though. Alex isn’t exactly leadership material, and the bosses still remember that time I tried to shoot my lieutenant. Kat’s a sniper, not to mention mute, and George doesn’t have a head for tactics. Who else would it be?”

“I don’t know—anyone else?” I fished around in the lunch box and managed to find my water. “C’mon, Sax, I know Necessarius has a reputation for letting in any ragtag bunch of misfits and putting them to use, but there are better options out there than me.” I shook my head and took a swig of my drink. “At least a freakin’ corporal.”

The changeling didn’t say anything, and I glanced over at him, frowning. What was wrong?

After a moment’s silent contemplation, he looked me straight in the eye. “Kelly. Do you even know what is going on with the rest of the city right now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “…no? I mean, I’m assuming you’re not talking about the screamers.”

His gaze didn’t waver, but a frustrated look did pass over his face. “Gods of men and darkness, you need to start paying attention to the news.”

I took another drink from my water bottle, using it as an excuse to break eye contact and get away from that piercing gaze. “Fine, I’ll get on that. Just tell me what you’re talking about.”

He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Kel, we’re all that’s left.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, don’t be ridiculous. Necessarius is stronger than ever.”

“In pure numbers, yes,” he admitted. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. We’ve taken some heavy hits recently, lost a lot of our officers. Putting down the old gangs was costly, and we still have to deal with the cultures.”

“Yes, I know,” I said as patiently as I could. “But recruitment is way up.”

“That’s the exact problem. Everyone we have is completely green.”

Then it clicked, and I put down my water. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” he deadpanned. “Oh. Right now, the five of us are some of the most experienced soldiers the Big Boss has, period.” He sighed. “Alex snooped around, and said that if we hadn’t been put on this job, we’d all have been bumped up to sergeant at least.”

“Put the veterans in charge of the greenies,” I muttered. “Definitely a better idea than promoting a couple of snot-nosed kids a few ranks up the ladder.”

The changeling nodded. “Exactly. But then the whole thing with the screamers started, and everyone was scrambling to figure out a solution.” He shrugged. “We’re most useful here. If they sent anyone else, they’d just get killed.”

“And we wouldn’t react well to being commanded by a completely green corporal or whatever.”

He tilted his head in assent. “Exactly. So don’t be so hard on yourself; we need you to stay strong.” He shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, remember that technically we’re under the command of the Paladins. You’re not actually in charge.”

“That—” I paused before I could finished my retort. “…actually, that does make me feel better. Thanks.”

“What makes you feel better?” George grunted as he slid open the door to the van using the side of his body, his arms filled with candy and chocolate.

“Never you mind,” I assured him. “And what’s with the snacks?”

The giant grinned. “The nearest 24-7 store had a sale. I figured we may as well have something better than protein bars and ratburgers.”

Jarasax snorted. “You might have the buffs to eat a couple pounds of chocolate at once, but the rest of us will get sick.”

“I didn’t mean for us to eat it all at once. Besides, we need sugar because of the Insomniac buffs, right?”

I shrugged. “He’s got a point, Sax.”

“I also got a job at the board. A quick delivery a few blocks away.”

The changeling raised an eyebrow at me. “Still think he’s got a point?”

“Just because he’s wrong about one thing doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything,” I insisted a little angrily. I turned to the giant. “We’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Paladins in case of an attack, not taking on side-quests.”

“Ten minutes,” he promised. “No more. Maybe a little less if we drive.”

He certainly looked eager. And a nice, easy delivery mission might be just the thing to get morale up after the burner attack…

Finally, I sighed and flipped out my phone to text Alex and Kat. “Fine. But this is it. If you have an idea like this again, make sure to ask first.”

The ogre grinned and buckled himself in. “Yes, ma’am.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 20)

The Insomniac gland is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and is extremely common among doctors, law enforcement, and anyone else expected to be on call at all hours. It completely removes the need to sleep, with only two side effects: First, the modder loses the ability to sleep at all (unfortunate, but everyone saw that coming), and second, they require about ten percent more calories, mostly in sugar. All in all, a pretty good deal.

Unless you’re one of the six percent of the population that are psychologically addicted to dreams beyond what is biologically necessary, in which case a lack of REM sleep will result in a psychotic break (“dreamsick”), in which case you’ll probably end up being put down like a mad dog. But they’re getting better at weeding those out before installing the buff.

Scene 19 – Pietas

PIETAS

ARTEMIS

My name is Artemis Butler.

And I am very, very tired.

I find it hard to complain at times like this; I hadn’t been directly involved in the fighting. The 9th South Central Infantry Battalion had fought the screamers for hours and taken heavy losses in the process. They’d need to be merged with another battalion sooner rather than later. The 16th might be a good choice; one of their companies had been nearly annihilated in the biter attack on Saturday.

I hadn’t fought. I couldn’t fight. My body was too weak. I had a number of incurable degenerative muscle and bone disorders that had kept me bed-ridden most of my childhood, until I was surgically implanted with steel and titanium bone reinforcements. Even with that, normally at my age I would be long dead. But the toy maker could hold even the worst diseases at bay. For most with similar conditions in Domina City, there was a simple monthly procedure to let them live a normal life. Expensive, yes, but well worth the cost.

But I was lutum informis, ‘the unformed clay.’ I was resistant to the toy maker. Irony of ironies.

I received weekly treatments, but my body was still frail. I could stand, I could walk, I could even run if I really had to. But I couldn’t fight. It just wasn’t possible.

My phone rang in my pocket, five simple beeps. I clicked the desktop terminal, which also put it on speaker. It was just easier that way.

“Yes, Mary? What is it?”

Her simple program responded quickly and smoothly. “Senator McDowell is on the line. Would you like me to patch him through?”

“Yes, thank you.” I switched on my monitor as well; the senators almost always used video calls.

Evangel’s face appeared on my screen within seconds. As usual, his black and white fur was carefully groomed, and his teeth brushed til they shone. His blue eyes, however, had lost some of that gleam I had grown to expect from him. He was tired too.

The ursa anthros were still a little odd; most of the other kemos were obviously human, albeit in animal skins. But ursas looked like nothing so much as bears lumbering around on their hind legs. I suppose that was the point, but it was a bit disconcerting.

“Senator,” I said with a smile. The melano and I might not be friends, precisely, but I found his debates intelligent and well-reasoned. “You look tired. I take it the screamers woke you?” I frowned as I realized the full implications. “Actually, don’t you live in that area?”

“Yes,” he replied tiredly. “I’ve been fighting with your troops since this all started.”

Men and monsters. I bit back a curse and kept my face passive with decades of practice. This was either good, or very very bad.

“I trust they were more than competent,” I said smoothly.

He grinned toothily. It looked a bit crazed. Lord, he needed sleep more than I did. “That’s a pretty apt description, actually. More than competent.” He shook his head. “And those Paladins…I don’t know where you found them, but well done.”

“Luck,” I admitted. “Nothing more. But I’m guessing you didn’t just call to praise my new troops.” While he had done that before, he had always waited until he had rested. No, this was something else.

He nodded. “Indeed. First, it’s about the captured screamers. I believe in addition to the burners, you still have a biter?”

“Yes. And our tests are inconclusive. We tested on a few volunteers, and preliminary assumptions were correct: They are still contagious. Killing the singers hasn’t seemed to change anything.”

“On that note, what about Loga? He hasn’t reverted, has he?”

“Oh, far from it. In fact, as far as we can tell, he’s exactly the same as the Paladins now.”

The big melano blinked. “Really?”

I nodded. “Yes, he’s immune to infection, and he has a power—pyrokinesis, in his case. I don’t think we have to worry about him reverting any time soon.” I sighed. “The bad news is we still don’t know why he was cured when his singer was killed, and no one else was. The only logical explanation we have at the moment is that its because he was only infected for a few moments.”

“Which would mean the others are incurable,” the senator muttered. He frowned. “You’re not going to make him a Paladin, are you?”

“Of course not. He’s far too young. He might be useful as an early warning system, since he can hear the screamers as well, but we’re not sending him into combat.”

Evangel nodded in agreement and steepled his claws in front of him, thinking. “What I’m more worried about,” he said slowly. “Is that the singers were apparently seeking a fey.”

“They didn’t find her,” I pointed out.

“Yes, but the fact that they thought to look indicates an intelligence behind these attacks.” We had assumed that for quite some time, of course, but this was unshakeable proof. “Zombies are a nuisance, Mister Butler. If they have something pulling their strings…”

“I am well aware of the problems this presents, Senator,” I said quietly. “And I promise you we are doing everything in our power to find this perpetrator and stop him.” I smiled. “But for now, I have work to do, and you need to go to sleep. You’ve earned it.”

He just chuckled. “I didn’t do much, but I’ll admit that I need it. I pray for your continued success.” He hung up, and my monitor switched back to the desktop.

I sighed and sat back in my chair. So tired. But I had to stay up. Had to coordinate rebuilding efforts in the damaged district, console the populace, make sure Isaac wasn’t getting too caught up in his experiments…

I got up out of my chair and headed towards the door, leaning heavily on my cane.

It was necessary.

Behind the Scenes (scene 19)

Butler has always had problems delegating.

Extra update Wednesday, as apologies for the super-short one.

Scene 18 – Torrida Tellus

TORRIDA TELLUS

DEREK

I watched the building Laura had gone into fall, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. The front of the shop sloughed away like a collapsing cliff face, but most of the building remained standing. It was only three stories high anyway, so there wasn’t that much rubble raining down. A few zombies got squashed, but mostly they just dodged out of the way and watched as the intersection filled with dust.

The horde was moving towards us again, some latent instinct keeping them away from what might still be dangerous. I released my barrier on the storefront I was in, and the survivors opened fire on the zombies. I moved back behind the firing line and flipped out my cell.

“MC? Is Laura alright?” I asked once I got to her.

“Seems to be,” she said quickly. “She brought the roof down on purpose, and it sounds like she’s moving around…” she paused. “One sec, she found a singer.”

“What? Tell her to stay away from it. MC?”

I glanced at my screen; as expected, she had hung up. This was not good. I knew Laura would feel the need to experiment and test our immunity. She was the one who found out about the secondary benefits of our package, just because she decided to see if she could suddenly do a backflip.

But I was the one who should be risked, not her. The girls were too valuable to lose.

I glanced at the survivors in my redoubt, but I knew they wouldn’t be able to help, even if I could communicate my needs to them. There were only six of them, equipped with small arms, and they had stabbed out their own eardrums to save themselves from the song. It might sound like overkill, but with the toy maker they’d get fixed without a great deal of effort.

But then again, they were all big ursas, a malay (black fur) and five thibs (black fur with a big white spot on the chest). I might be able to barrel through the horde in time…

No way. Even if we could get to point C without them getting infected, we’d still have to dig her out. We couldn’t possibly do that in time. Not even Ling would be able to manage it.

I’m not often in situations where I can’t do anything; I felt so helpless and afraid. Normally, if nothing else, I can get Akane’s help, but she was probably having a harder time of it than I was.

Then my phone buzzed. MC.

“Hello?” I said too quickly.

“Direct order to everyone from Laura:” My heart felt tight in my chest. She was alive. “Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

I couldn’t see any from our redoubt, and I didn’t like the idea of jumping into the horde without a plan. Besides, Adam and the retinue would have a better vantage point, so I left it to them.

After a few more minutes, MC called back, this time only to me.

“Something’s wrong with Laura,” she said without preamble. “She’s crying, and isn’t responding.”

I blinked, confused, and decided to get the worst possibility out of the way first. “Crying like…screaming?”

“No, like with tears. I don’t know what’s going on. I told her the singers were dead, she asked if anything happened, I said it didn’t, and then she just went all BSOD.”

Well, at least she wasn’t a zombie. “Do you have any of the survivors in her vicinity on the line?”

“No. When I heard about the singers, I told everyone to destroy their phones, just in case.”

“Sounds like overkill,” I pointed out disapprovingly.

“At least one store got turned by their intercom system,” she replied flatly. “I’d have you nix yours too if I didn’t know you need them.”

Silver and gold. That was too smart for zombies. Whoever was behind this…why wait til now? Why only do it to one store? Too many questions.

“Can you isolate the communications systems, make it harder for them to do that to multiple places at once?”

“Did already,” she replied. “Spawned a couple failsafes, including a sort of self-destruct, that I control. I can kill the entire network in a moment if something goes sideways.”

“And you’re the only one with access?”

“Of course.”

“Okay, good.” I took a deep breath. “Order Akane and Ling to retreat to the ‘sarians redoubt. I’m going to try and rescue Laura.”

“Got it. But what about the retinue?”

I frowned. I wasn’t sure. I’m used to fighting with two people, including myself. This was a bit beyond my expertise.

Well, Laura definitely knew what she was doing. “Tell them to stay put and provide supporting fire. Kill any singers they see.”

There was a brief pause. “Done,” she said cheerfully. “Good luck with your girlfriend.”

I blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Oh, come on, not even you could fail to notice after that kiss.”

“How did you know about…” I shook my head violently. “No, Akane and Ling were being cruel, and Laura was shutting them up. That’s it.”

There was another pause, much longer than the first. “Dear lord, you’re stupid.”

She hung up before I could respond.

I sighed. I’d never understand women. The cruel and disingenuous flirting, I was used to. But with MC getting in on it, I was beginning to think all women were just born crazy.

Whatever. I put it out of my mind. I had work to do.

I managed to communicate my intent to the ursas, and they split off towards the Necessarian redoubt, cutting through the screamers without much difficulty. While they distracted the zombies, I swallowed my terror and made a beeline for point C.

I had to kill a few screamers, but I had a lot of experience fighting hand-to-hand, and my shields blocked fire without faltering in the slightest. And, again, they seemed more interested in the ursas. I wondered if that had something to do with the fact I had powers. Maybe they thought I was friendly until proven otherwise? Well, maybe not friendly—they still attacked me when no one else was around.

Whatever. It wasn’t important right now; Laura could probably figure it out.

It took me over half an hour to cross the square, even with the screamers distracted. Laura had collapsed the entire storefront, but I quickly found a loading dock around the back. Both the large gate and the normal-sized metal door were locked, and I didn’t have anything to break it.

I pounded on the door until my fists hurt, but no one answered, and I didn’t expect them to. They’d all be deaf by now, or they found some other way to protect themselves. Either way, I doubted they could hear me.

I cast around something, anything. A sledgehammer to batter down the doors, an intercom to call inside…

Or an abandoned ladder, to climb onto the roof.

The ladder was old, and covered bits of dried mud from being left out in the rain, but it was stainless steel, so it was still serviceable. I set it up and clambered up to the second story roof. I had the presence of mind to kick away the ladder so the screamers couldn’t use it, thankfully. There were no windows, but I was able to reach the third story roof pretty easily.

It really was an old style building; the roof was flat, and it didn’t have the stairwell entrance most structures in the city had. Clearly, the builders didn’t intend for anyone to hang out on the roof smoking during their lunch breaks.

I managed to find a trapdoor without much difficulty, however. Luckily it was on the backside of the roof, so I didn’t have to worry about landing in rubble because of Laura’s little stunt. The lock was rusted over, but the door itself was cheap plywood, so I just kicked through it. There was no ladder, but it was less than ten feet down, so I just jumped.

All the lights in the store were out; whether that was intentional or Laura had screwed with the electricity when she brought the roof down, I didn’t know.

This was clearly the office level, with many well-labeled rooms like “Head Manager” and “Hiring Manager.” I found the stairs quickly and headed down, skipping the second floor entirely. I had a feeling Laura would be on the first level. The offices made it clear that this was a hardware store; any risks caused by being on the ground floor would be offset by easy access to power tools and other improvised weaponry.

The first thing I noticed when I came out of the stairwell was the dust. It was everywhere, floating in the air like mist. I coughed and waved my arm in the air, trying to disperse it. I wasn’t really sure where to start looking, but the collapse seemed as good as any.

It was a bit harder going than I expected. What little light there was refracted off the dust in unexpected ways, so I was jumping at shadows the whole time. All in all, it took me nearly ten minutes to walk about thirty feet.

But as I turned the last corner, I saw a group of survivors wearing large headphones, clustered around something. There was a big melano, a panda ursa, who I assumed was the leader. He had some huge device slung across his back—after a moment, I identified it as an air compressor, hooked up to a large nailgun in his paw.

I called out to them, but no one noticed, which wasn’t unexpected. I almost walked up and tapped the melano on the shoulder, but thought better of it at the last moment. Instead, I conjured a shield between us.

As expected, they all noticed the glowing blue barrier instantly and jumped nearly three feet. Commendably, they didn’t actually open fire, which I had been worried they might. Once I was sure I had their attention, I dropped the shield and mimed taking off headphones. The melano did so, but motioned for the others to keep theirs on.

Cautious. Good.

“There was a girl here earlier,” I said, not bothering with the niceties. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, so he probably wouldn’t like it, but he’d be far too polite to mention it. “A paladin. I’m told she’s the one who dropped the roof. Where can I find her?”

The big ursa blinked at me, then just stepped aside without a word.

With him out of the way (and my gaze no longer being drawn up), I saw what they were protecting: Laura, sitting on the floor, weeping and clutching the ring she kept on a chain around her neck.

“Laura?” I whispered, kneeling down next to her. She didn’t respond, but she was whispering something I could barely hear. I leaned in closer.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

I turned to the melano. “How long has she been like this?”

He scratched his chin with a dull claw. “About…an hour? After she killed the singer, she called MC. MC called back, and she just…” he trailed off and shrugged.

I nodded. That fit with MC’s timeline, but did little to illuminate what happened.

Regardless, we didn’t have time for this. We needed to get to the ‘sarian redoubt. In the worst case scenario, the melano could carry her, but I was hoping I could snap her out of this.

I turned back to her. “Laura, we need to go.”

She didn’t respond, she just continued muttering and crying softly.

“It should have worked why didn’t it work it should have worked why didn’t it work…”

We didn’t have time for this. But what else could I do? I was just about to order the melano to pick her up when I had a thought.

Would it work? Probably not, but…

“If she shoots me,” I said to the big kemo, “tell her not to feel bad about it.”

Then I kissed her full on the lips.

I’ll be honest, I expected her to react slower than she did. I had barely even made contact when she pulled back, and I felt the cold metal barrel of her Occisor pressing against my forehead.

“Derek,” she said calmly, as if nothing was out of the ordinary. But her eyes were hard, and cold as ice. If I said the wrong thing, she would shoot me.

“Laura,” I answered with a smile. “Good, you’re ready to go.”

She lowered the gun with a glare, dried her eyes, and stood. I rose as well, and she indicated one of the survivors, a young black baseline.

“Protect him with your lives,” she ordered the others. They nodded, understanding some significance I had missed. I shrugged. It wasn’t important at the moment.

“We need to head to the Necessarian redoubt,” I pointed out. “All the singers should be dead, but keep the headphones on anyway.” I turned to Laura again. “Did you find out if we’re immune?”

She nodded, but didn’t elaborate.

Good enough for me.

We left from the ground floor; the doors I had found impassable were locked from the inside, and easy to open from this angle. By now, the back street was filled with smoke; the screamers were fanning out, seeking more victims. But this was still safer than out in the intersection, so we went around to the redoubt from the back.

As we should have expected, the Necessarians had constructed their fortress in a cul de sac of buildings, putting their back up to the wall, so to speak. Some of the skyscrapers had entrances on our side, but they were all boarded up and locked. Necessarius taught it’s soldiers well.

Cursing, I indicated for the others to set up defensive positions, with Laura and the kid in the center, while I called MC.

“I need you to call the ‘sarian in charge at the redoubt,” I said once she picked up. “We’re around the back, and we can’t get in.”

She muttered something under her breath I didn’t quite catch. “That’s gonna be tricky. The screamers are making a push, and they blocked those ways pretty well. It would take too many men to open it up again.”

I frowned. We couldn’t just bash through. Even if we physically could, it would leave a massive gap in the defenses.

“Are the inner doors unlocked?” Laura asked.

I started. I had expected her to mope for a while longer; apparently my kiss had pissed her off enough to bring her back to her usual self.

“What do you mean?” MC asked. I had her on speaker, which was how Laura had heard her in the first place.

“There are the doors leading in from the street we’re on,” she explained patiently. “And then on the other side, there are the doors leading directly into the redoubt. Are those blocked?”

“No,” MC replied quickly. “The Old Wolf thought they might need to use the ‘scrapers as a fallback, and kept them open. What’s your plan?”

“We can climb up the side of the building, go in through a window or the roof, and just come down.”

I looked up at the building in question, frowning. This was a server farm—most of the structures in the area were. That meant it was pretty much just a sheer cliff face. There weren’t even any windows.

“I don’t think we can do that,” I said slowly.

Laura shrugged. “They’ll ditch the nailguns and air compressors. It’ll be fine.”

“The hunter, sure, but no one else.” None of the others had claws; they wouldn’t be able to find any handholds.

“One second,” MC interrupted. We waited obligingly, and she came back a moment later. “The ‘scraper behind you is taller. Break in there, find rope or something, and zipline across.”

Laura was incredulous. “Zipline? Across an entire street? That’s your suggestion?”

“Better than expecting these guys to climb,” I pointed out.

“It’s also a climber’s ‘scraper,” MC added, and looking at the walls I could see she was right. It had been built with kemos in mind, with a large number of cunningly-disguised handholds worked into the architecture. “And there are some strong outcroppings on the roof you can tie the line to.”

“If nothing else, we can have the melano climb the server building and hold the other end,” I mused aloud.

“I can hear you,” the kemo in question put in, in an annoyed tone. “And I have a name. It’s Evangel. Evangel McDowell.”

“All right then Van, did you hear the plan? What do you think?”

“It’s a good one,” he admitted. “My main problem is that I’m worried not all of us will be able to use the zipline.”

“The biggest is you,” I pointed out. He was seven feet tall with a width to match; he probably weighed three hundred pounds or more. “And you’ll be climbing the other building, to catch the line.”

“Not everyone here is an athlete,” he said drily. “I mean I don’t think they’ll be able to hang onto the zipline. They’re tired, and they’re not used to so much physical labor.”

“We’ll worry about that later,” Laura declared decisively. “We can always rest on the roof. But right now we need to move.” She indicated the street around us. “The screamers are getting closer.”

Indeed, the smoke was becoming more thick, glowing like fog as the moonlight dappled through it, and I could hear—or rather sense—the zombies circling around the back of the redoubt to our location.

Van nodded. “Good luck to you then, Honored Paladins.” He flexed his paws, readying his large claws, and started scaling the side of the windowless building with surprising swiftness. I was honestly impressed; it would be a hard enough task on its own, but he hadn’t bothered to drop the massive air compressor slung across his back.

The other survivors had taken off their headphones, and had probably heard the tail end of the discussion, but I recapped it anyway. “We’re heading to the roof of that building. There shouldn’t be any screamers in there, but stay sharp.”

I took point and the rest followed, Laura and the baseline boy in the middle. I still didn’t know why he was so important, but I had faith it would become clear soon enough.

We broke into the building in seconds; the doors were wood, and while the lock held, they did not. We barricaded it behind us. The last thing we needed was zombies nipping at our heels.

As far as I could tell, this was an office building about half-way renovated as an apartment complex. Or maybe it was both; it was becoming more and more popular to allow workers to operate from home. Regardless, it was abandoned, as everyone had fled once Necessarius sounded the alarm.

There weren’t any screamers inside, so we had no trouble swiftly ascending the stairs. We could have taken the elevators, but I don’t think anyone felt comfortable with that idea. Laura and I might not be able to hear any screamers, but we knew we needed to be careful anyway.

As MC had said, the roof had a number of outcroppings we could use to tie off a line—air conditioners, pipes, and so on. We could clearly see the other rooftop, as well as Van, about halfway up the side.

“Establish a base camp,” I advised Laura. “I’m going to find something we can use to cross.” We hadn’t bothered scavenging on the way up, knowing that the roof would be far safer. A group of scared, untrained deaf civilians would be enough trouble up here; in the cramped corridors of the building, they would probably shoot each other if they so much as saw a rat.

The apartment/office building wasn’t that tall, about twenty stories, but I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to find something we could use—at least not without being forced to break into someone’s home. High-grade rope isn’t exactly something you need when your job involves sitting in front of a computer all day.

I started at the janitor closets. There were two per floor, and while I had a bit of trouble breaking into the first one, it had a spare ring of keys hanging on the wall, so the others weren’t a problem. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could use. Plenty of cleaning supplies that Laura would probably know how to turn into interesting weapons for our last stand, but no rope.

After the fifth closet—three floors down—I sat in one of the surprisingly comfortable chairs and sighed. One of the most advanced cities on the planet, and I couldn’t find something that had been invented thousands of years ago. Seriously, everything from human hair to bark could be woven into rope. No one got really bored one day and started braiding candy wrappers together?

That’s when I had an idea.

Not candy wrappers—I wasn’t that desperate—but something similarly basic.

I ran back to the janitor’s closets and grabbed as many extension cords as I could. I carried them up top, ignored the confused looks of my charges, and went looking for more. It took a while, but eventually I managed to gather a hundred different bundles, each about thirty feet long.

The roofs we were aiming for were only fifty or sixty feet apart. Braiding the cords together and attaching the resulting ropes resulted in a good, strong line nearly a hundred feet long. It would never do as a zipline; the plugs and knots would foul that up. But if we dropped all our equipment and hung from it by our hands, me might be able to do it.

As I was making this impromptu rope, Laura just raised an eyebrow.

“That will never work,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone. “Even if it will hold, these people wouldn’t be able to manage it at their best. They’re tired and hungry—they won’t make it five feet.”

“Adrenaline can do a lot for the human body,” I pointed out.

She shook her head. “Not that much.” She sighed. “We should just have Van break open the barricade from the inside.”

“No,” I said firmly. “Only as a last resort. It would open up a hole in the defenses. This will work.”

She rolled her eyes. “I think you just want to have the experience.” She sighed again. “Whatever. I’ll tell him to hold off until someone dies and you learn your lesson.” She walked to the edge, behind me.

It took me a second to realize what was wrong. “Wait, MC said she had them smash their phones.”

“They did,” she admitted, and now that I was looking at her I saw that she was signing something in the direction of the server building. “But Van knows sign language and I had a spare pare of binoculars.” She stopped signing and pulled a small pair out of her pack, presumably to read his response.

I blinked. There was an easy solution here. The fact that Laura hadn’t thought of it first was probably a sign that she was still reeling from her freak out.

“We could just leave the civies here,” I pointed out. “Get some food for them and barricade the door. Then we go across, clean everything up, and come back for them.”

She bit her lip, then signed something to Van. I don’t know much sign language, but I’m pretty sure it was ‘wait.’

“That could work,” she admitted. “The main problem is that we don’t know how long it will take to clean up the screamers. They could be stuck up here for days. Exposed to the weather…”

“We’ll have them barricade two floors down, instead.” I shrugged. “There’s only two entrances on each floor, not counting the elevator. So they’ll have food stores, bathrooms, and even computers.”

“They’ll be at the top of a skyscraper and facing creatures that control fire.”

“The screamers haven’t shown interest in them yet. And we’ll leave the line up, so they can escape if they need to.” She started to protest to that, but I corrected myself. “And, of course, we can simply remove the barricades on the server ‘scraper if we have to.”

“Sounds good to me,” one of the survivors chirped. The young vampire seemed much more composed than the others; being under a cool night sky probably made him feel better.

Laura sighed. “Fine. Drake, go get Loga. He’s coming with us.” The vampire nodded an hurried off.

I raised my eyebrow. “And Loga would be…”

“The little changeling,” she replied tersely. She was signing at Van again. Then, realizing that ‘changeling’ was a completely worthless descriptor, corrected herself. “The black boy.”

I nodded. He was the youngest, he needed to be protected more than the others. It was a bit odd that Laura was going to such trouble, but I knew to trust her judgment. She was simply smarter than me, and that was all there was to it.

I tied one end of my completed rope to a nice, solid pipe and instructed the defenders to keep an eye on it and make sure nothing went wrong. I tied a hammer I found to the other end, swung it around a few times, and tossed it across the way.

I’m pretty strong—you have to be, to wrestle a territorial dumpster-dog to the ground—and I still suspected my muscles had been enhanced by the empowering. The rope made it across without difficulty. Van was wise enough to not actually try and catch it; he let it land on the roof, and just grabbed it before it could slide down to the street below. He tied it to something, though I wasn’t sure what, and gave us a thumbs up.

“All right, that’s the signal,” Laura said unnecessarily. She turned to the changeling, who seemed to be having second thoughts. “You ready to go?”

The boy stared at her, eyes wide. This was probably the craziest thing he had ever done. Changelings are completely baseline, and avoid the toy maker like the plague. They try and live nice, normal lives as far away from anything that might remind them of the fey as possible. Some of them, like Jarasax, joined up with their militias, but this kid was too young for that.

But changeling or not, the boy trusted Laura enough to nod once, ready to cross the urban canyon. I guess once you’ve seen someone intentionally and successfully bring down a roof, you gain a bit of a resistance to crazy stuff.

“Laura will go first,” I said to him. “Then you, then me. Wait until she’s all the way across before starting, okay?” As the lightest, he should probably be first, but seeing Laura cross successfully would give him a good morale boost. And if anyone was going to break the line, it would be me, so I obviously had to go last.

Laura let herself down slowly, sliding off the edge of the building while gripping the line with white knuckles. She was trying hard to appear calm, and she was doing an admirable job of it. The fact that she couldn’t really see the street through the smoke and darkness below probably helped quell her fears.

She headed forward on the cord, hand over hand, slowly and surely. It took her about ten minutes, but she made it across with no problems. The line didn’t show any signs of breaking, and Van pulled her up when she reached the other side.

I clapped Loga on the back lightly. “Okay, its your turn now. Go slowly. Take your time. You’ll be fine.”

He nodded and took a deep breath…then another. And another.

I grimaced. “You’re going to hyperventilate if you keep that up. Slow breaths. Slow and steady, just like everything else.”

He nodded again and took hold of the line with shaking hands. He let out the breath he had been holding and jumped down in a rush.

It was a good idea, like how you should just jump into a swimming pool and get it over with. But in this case, the extension cords jumped wildly, and I was afraid they might actually snap or unravel. Loga seemed frozen in fright.

But the bouncing quickly stopped, and I called down to him. “You’re doing fine, Loga. Now just start forward.” I almost said ‘don’t look down,’ but I’m not that stupid.

He made his stuttering way across, stopping when the line swayed too much, but everyone made sure to give him lots of verbal encouragement, and although it took almost half an hour, he made it to the other side without major incident.

Before heading over myself, I turned to the vampire. He was definitely the one nominally in charge, if only because he was the only one who was actively doing anything. They were all kids, a bit younger than me; apparently Van was the only adult who had survived the initial attack.

“Be careful, but don’t just shoot anything you see,” I advised. “Remember your ammo is limited.”

He nodded. “Good luck, Honored Paladin.”

I was still getting used to being called that. But, I guess it was about time us baselines got a title of our own. Sparing it no more thought, I slowly lowered myself down until I was hanging from the line by my hands. Despite my own fears, I sped forward much faster than Loga or Laura. I had a bit more confidence in my rope-braiding abilities than those two. You’d be surprised how often you need to make one rope out of two when you’re out hunting.

All in all, it only took me five minutes to cross, albeit going faster than was probably safe. The line creaked dangerously a few times, but I didn’t worry about it too much, and it held. I had used ziplines before, so I knew better than to look down or do anything else stupid.

When I took Van’s paw and climbed onto the server building’s roof, I found Laura standing there, arms crossed and eyebrow raised.

“Something wrong?” I asked. I didn’t really know what I had done wrong. We had wasted enough time as it was; wasn’t it better to get across faster?

She just rolled her eyes. “Show off.”

We found the stairs down easily enough, and Van broke the metal door off its hinges with a few good rams from his shoulder. We made sure to wedge it back into place as much as possible. It was unlikely, but the screamers could get up here, and all the ridiculousness with the power cords would be moot.

The next level down, we barricaded the door with a free desk. There weren’t a lot; this was a server farm, which meant rows and rows of blinking machines, with enough air conditioning to make our breath visible. The desk seemed to belong to the maintenance man. Well, we had carefully stacked his pictures on the chair before putting the desk on its side against the doorway, so he couldn’t complain too much.

We made sure to barricade the next few floors as well. The zombies probably wouldn’t get up here in the first place—they’d shown no predilection towards climbing—but better safe than sorry.

When we got down to the first floor, we immediately found two vampires waiting for us, rifles ready.

“Honored Paladins Darin and Laurel?” the one on the left demanded.

“Derek and Laura, actually,” I corrected him tiredly, recognizing it as a test. “And this is Honored Hunter Van McDowell, and…uh…”

Laura stepped in quickly. “Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” she provided. “Take us to wherever you’re keeping the captured screamers. Immediately.”

“You can explain to me later,” I said as the vamps started leading us away. “I’ll start briefing the commander.” I turned to our escort. “Who’s in charge here?”

“First Lieutenant Nathaniel Vovk,” he replied as we exited the server building. A few other ‘sarians locked and barred the door behind us, and the other vampire split off with Laura and Loga. “He’s a lupe anthro, so don’t freak out…” he glanced at Van. “Nevermind.”

I frowned. “People are discriminating against anthros now?”

He snorted. “Of course they are. People discriminate against everything. And with Necessarius spread thin with the screamers, we’re having trouble containing the riots. The packs do there best, of course, but they’re just militia, and a lot of them are just bullies anyway.” He shrugged. “But Big Boss will deal with it, sooner or later. Here’s the Old Wolf. I have to get back to the front.” He trotted off.

The lieutenant’s title was a pretty apt descriptor. He was old, covered in silver fur, with sharp wolf ears, wide wolf fangs, and long claws.

It took me a second to note that despite the vampire’s assumption, he wasn’t actually an anthro. The ‘fur’ was actually hair, and his fangs were contained within a human mouth rather than an animal snout. His claws were steel, not keratin.

He was talking to someone it took me a moment to recognize as Kelly, her crimson hair gray with ash. She had a few good burns, but otherwise looked none the worse for wear. Of the rest of the retinue, I saw no sign.

“Sir,” she said to the lupe, while indicating me. He turned.

“You’re the paladin the Big Boss sent for, then? Derek Hunter, was it?”

“Derek Huntsman, actually. What’s the status of our defense?”

“We’re holding pretty well,” Kelly reported. The lupe didn’t seem perturbed by her cutting in. ‘Lead by following the right grunt’ is a time-honored officer trick. “We haven’t seen any more singers since Miss Medina gave the kill order, so we’re having an easier time than before.” She glanced around. “Where is she, anyway?”

I waved my hand. “Inspecting the captured screamers. I’m not sure why, she’ll fill us in later.”

“Or I could fill you in now.”

I turned to see Laura walking up to us, her mouth set in a grim line. Loga was nowhere to be found.

“How did the boy take it?” Van rumbled.

She sighed. “Better than expected. He’s restrained and sedated now. Once we clear out this mess, we can do some non-invasive tests.”

“Wait one second,” I said, holding up my hand. “What exactly is going on with the changeling?”

She smiled sadly. “He got infected by a singer. When I killed her, he went back to normal.”

I nearly staggered, but kept my composure with an effort. That meant there was a cure. Perhaps not an easy one, but if we killed the singers…

“…but we already killed the other singers,” I said slowly. “And no one else was cured.”

She nodded, the same sad smile still on her face. “I know. I had…issues with that.” She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. “But Loga might be the key. He’s a changeling, so who knows what’s unique about him. He might be the source of a cure.”

“But he’s baseline,” Van put in. “I mean, he wasn’t always, obviously, but he got all his toys removed when he escaped. You’re not going to find your magic bullet there.”

Something was different about him,” she insisted. “Maybe it was his physiology, maybe it was his psychology, or maybe it was something about his circumstances.” She waved her hand, forestalling her own explanation. “But he was a screamer, and now he’s not.”

Vovk growled. “I do hope you explained the situation to his keepers. If he reverts, we’ll have a screamer in our camp.”

“Of course. As I said earlier, he’s heavily sedated and strapped down. But I told him everything as well, so he shouldn’t have any problems.”

“Good,” Van said decisively. “Then let’s get back to the matter at hand, shall we? We can’t perform experiments in a warzone.” He turned to me. “This isn’t really the place for me, Honored Paladin. Send me to where I’ll be most useful.”

I turned to Laura. “I haven’t seen him fight. What’s your take?”

She scratched her chin. “Send him to George. He probably has a spare minigun, and even if not, Van’s nailgun will still be useful. Unless…” she glanced at Kelly. “Everyone else is still okay, right?”

The vampire nodded. “Everyone accounted for. Minor burns, none worse than what I’ve got. Although Ling got scorched pretty bad on one leg. Medics are looking at her now.”

“Good,” I put in. “Specialist, take the Honored Hunter to George, if you would.”

She obeyed quickly, heading off to a distant corner of the front lines. The melano saluted crisply before he left, and I returned the gesture.

“What now?” the old lupe asked, once the other two were out of earshot.

I frowned. “We’re down one paladin, but that shouldn’t be too much trouble. We just need to make sure we get them all.” I listened to my sixth sense, the zombies screaming in my brain. “They’re pretty much all in front of us, as far as I can tell. You have some big guns?”

“A couple gatling guns. Though I’m not sure how long the ammo will last.”

Laura frowned as well. “The real problem is that we couldn’t hear the singers. We have no way of being sure they’re all gone.” She grimaced. “And there’s still the possibility they got to the Princess.”

“Unlikely,” I assured her. “The fey are crazy, not stupid. And she clearly knew what the singers could do.” I looked towards the front lines. There wasn’t much to see; smoke covered everything in an impenetrable cloud. But the Necessarians held the line anyway, shooting wherever the flames originated.

“Okay,” the lupe said with a nod. “Time to get to work.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 18)

The malays are sun bears (Ursus malayanus), while the thibs are asian black bears (Ursus thibetanus). Noticing a pattern? Of course, none of the ursa clans have a single actual bear cell in their bodies; they just look like they do. So in the end, it’s just what they call themselves.

Oh, and you may have noticed Laura refer to the vampire boy as “Drake.” This is the dimunitive of Dracula, which is (as you might expect) the most common male vampire name. Calling a vampire Drake is about the same as calling a random stranger “Jack;” it’s not exactly polite, but its a few steps up from “Hey you.”