Scene 31 – Aurora

AURORA

DEREK

The Monday after Akane’s birthday, we were in History again. The cane was droning on about some ancient war or another. I’m usually interested in that kind of thing, and it was a testament to the professor’s soporific voice that he could make even that seem boring.

Then the screaming started.

I should rephrase that. Ever since last week, when the burners attacked, the screaming hadn’t stopped. The ‘sarians had so many in captivity, it was a constant drone in the back of our minds.

But this was something new. A new source of screaming, to the east. Far east, if I was any judge. The Necessarian base where they were holding the burners was south-west.

I nudged Adam with my elbow and he nodded, packing up his things. Akane was already doing the same, of course. I noted she wasn’t wearing Flynn’s earrings anymore. She seemed to have shied away from him in the past few days, and I couldn’t figure out why.

The professor sighed. “Running away again, Mister Huntsman?”

I winced. I may not be the best of students, but I can usually manage to at least stay through the entire class. “Yes sir. It’s an emergency. You see—”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t care. Go.”

I nodded in thanks and sped off, leaving Lizzy looking confused. Silver and gold…at least she’s not that smart. Otherwise she would have figured it out in a heartbeat, and insisted on going with us.

We met up with Ling, Laura, and the retinue outside, and sped off in their van, with me giving directions. Akane insisted on clinging to me like a limpet the whole way, claiming that Jarasax’s driving kept throwing her around the cabin. He was going a bit fast, but I still thought she was overreacting.

As expected, the screaming was coming from South-East Central, so it was a bit of a drive. What I didn’t expect was our final destination.

Adam frowned, looking out the window. “What are those big awnings stretched between the buildings?”

“Sun canopies,” Laura said evenly. I admired her control; I was having trouble not lapsing into a fit of cursing. “So that the vampires can handle the daylight.” She pointed to a signpost bearing two symbols; the vampire bat on top, and another, more stylized symbol below. “This is Nosferatu territory.”

Every culture had its own subcultures, of course. Some more than others. The kemos, for example, were pretty much nothing but subcultures, and those had subcultures of their own, more properly called microcultures. Vampires were a bit more generalized; pretty much anyone with the nigtheyes was considered a vampire, and the subcultures barely got along.

The Nosferatu were vampires who embraced the physically monstrous aspects of the package. They had a lot in common with ghouls; in fact, many of them even had the cannibalism buff.

But more importantly, most of them also had large, dangerous fangs that they liked to use early and often. Normally, these weren’t any more dangerous than the claws they also had. But Laura and I had discussed this at length. It was quite possible that if a Nosferatu—or any vampire, to a lesser extent—became a screamer, he would retain the compulsion to bite people, thus spreading the virus as quickly as the biters. Add in the fact that they were almost always enhanced in other ways, and we had a serious problem on our hands.

By the time we reached our destination, the attack had already been underway for about an hour. It was nearly pitch-black, so it was difficult to see anything, but I could sense shapes moving beyond the wall the ‘sarians had set up. More disconcertingly, many of these shapes appeared to be in the air.

The redoubt, of course, was well-lit, though I did see a large number of men and women with goggles to protect themselves from the harsh light. I’m sure the benefit of keeping away the screamers—who were likely almost exclusively vampires—was worth the trouble.

To my surprise, the one in charge was a full-fledged general, albeit one with only a single star on his shoulder. He was an old baseline, maybe about fifty, and he saluted me crisply as we got out of the van. I wasn’t sure if I was actually his superior or not; he was probably just being respectful. He eyed Akane—still clinging to me—with distaste, but didn’t otherwise let his disapproval show.

“Honored Paladins,” he said as I finally managed to pry Akane off my arm. What was with her today? “I’m happy you were able to make it on such short notice.”

“Let’s start simple,” I replied. “How many screamers are we dealing with?”

“There were only about a dozen when we first noticed them,” he said, handing me a pair of night-vision goggles so I could see for myself. “They’re been multiplying, as I’m sure you can guess, but we haven’t had a chance to do a proper headcount. On the plus side, we haven’t seen any of those singers.”

It took me a moment for me to parse what I was seeing through the goggles, and connect it to what I was being told. Nosferatu—not screamers—were attacking each other.

“General,” I said slowly, not lowering the goggles. “Why exactly were you in the area?”

“Gang war.”

I cursed and handed the device back to him.

“The Guruhi and Nictuku have been building to this for months,” he continued. “Minor slights that we haven’t had time to investigate. When the screamers started up…” he shrugged. “We haven’t had the presence to keep them afraid. Nightfall today, they finally went all out.”

“And then the screamers appeared.”

He nodded. “Yeah.” He sighed deeply, shaking his head. “And it barely even slowed them down.”

These idiots were literally waging a civil war in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

I presumed the Guruhi and the Nictuku were just more subcultures. Vampires call those ‘bloodlines’—each culture has their own name for it—but I didn’t know much about them. All I knew was that they were Nosferatu, and they were fighting.

“What powers are the screamers displaying?” Laura asked, getting straight to the point. She was right. The civil war was irrelevant; we’d deal with them eventually, but the zombies had to take precedence.

“Shapeshifting,” the general growled. “Into bats.”

I blinked. “You’re joking.”

He snorted. “I wish. They can’t seem to hold the form for longer than a few seconds, but that’s enough to slip past our barricade.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Any good news?”

The general shrugged. “Our angels are on their way. Don’t know the ETA, though.”

Laura nodded. “How many?”

He just grinned. “All of them.”

Well, at least there was some good news. “Laura, stay here. Use the retinue as you see fit. Adam, keep an eye on the general. Last thing we need is him getting turned. Ling, Akane, we’re going in.” I clambered over the barricade, not even bothering to see if my orders were being obeyed. Not everyone was used to listening to me yet, but Laura was persuasive, and she would have organized the defenders whether I told her to or not. Sometimes looking like a leader was just that simple.

I landed on the empty street directly in front of the redoubt and stood carefully. There weren’t very many screamers nearby, which was probably why the Necessarians had lasted so long. Instead, they were focusing on the stupid vampires, fighting blessedly far from our own lines.

On second thought, the screamers could wait. If we could bring the vampires in line, everything else would be easier. I waited until I heard the two thumps that indicated Akane and Ling had followed me, then swallowed my apprehension and headed forward.

I ran quickly but quietly, avoiding the rubble and debris that would cause too much noise. The floodlights from the wall only illuminated for about a hundred paces or so; all the fighting took place beyond that.

Once we were out of the lighted area, we moved more cautiously. We stayed alert for ambushes and kept our ears open, but we were still at a major disadvantage. Our eyes were adjusting to the dark quickly, but we would never be a real match for a vampire in this environment. The screamers might be easy to spot, but the Nosferatu wouldn’t announce their presence so blatantly.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that they were the ones who ambushed us.

I heard two jump from behind, but I didn’t have time to deal with them. Another was in front, just barely discernible in the darkness as a hulking shape, built like a gorilla. He came at me, fangs bared.

I was scared. More accurately, I was terrified. That was pretty much the entire point of the Nosferatu; they looked like nightmares to demoralize their opponents, make them sloppy. But fighting always scared me. A lot of things did, honestly, but fighting was the worst. Everything happened so fast, and the stakes were all for keeps. Every time a fight started, I was terrified it would be my last. Terrified at what would happen to my friends, and terrified that I would never be able to tell Lizzy how I felt. Every time a fight started, my brain froze.

Once, my body froze too. That was my first fight. I heard a commotion in the girls’ bathroom when I was eleven and rushed in to find three girls threatening a fourth with a baseball bat. I hadn’t been able to act until they used the bat to break the girl’s knee.

Ever since then, although my brain might be frozen, my body was not.

I sidestepped the attack and tripped him up, but he recovered quickly, slashing at me with his claws. I dodged those and caught his wrist as he overswung. Then I pulled him down, bringing up my knee at the same time to meet him in the face. This stunned him long enough for me to get my arm around his neck and twist it, snapping it with a loud crack.

Now that the immediate threat was gone, I found I couldn’t move. I couldn’t move forward—not with those monsters out there—but I couldn’t go back. So I froze.

Then a scream split the night.

Not the toneless cry of a screamer, nor the keening banshee wail a lot of Nosferatu had. It was a simple, human scream of fear. The Nosferatu were active in this area, but there were still innocents, baseline and otherwise, who were in danger.

And they needed help.

I glanced over at the girls, who had also dispatched their foes. Ling was panting with effort and a bit pale, but seemed otherwise fine, and Akane didn’t seem any the worse for wear. I nodded, muscling aside my fear, and we headed out again.

It was only a few minutes until we found the real fighting, by following the screams as usual. It was just a small cluster, milling around over the corpses of a few Nosferatu.

The first thing that happened was one of the outlying zombies zipped up and bit me hard on the shoulder; Akane stabbed him quickly, but his jaw locked in death, and it took a minute to get him off. Thankfully, none of the other screamers seemed to notice us, and we were able to sneak up and eliminate the half-dozen or so easily.

Even with my decision to shift our focus to the Nosferatu, our main objective was to determine if there were any singers present. If there were, we needed to kill them so that the others could move in. If we were very lucky, that would result in the screamers being cured, but I wasn’t optimistic on that front.

The problem was since we couldn’t hear them like the screamers, we pretty much had to just wander around until we found something that looked interesting. I’m more used to missions where you know where the goal is going in.

The next battleground we stumbled upon favored us; one of the canopies overhead had come loose, allowing the light of the full moon to fall upon the square. The enemy would still be able to see better than us—their eyes worked fine in moonlight, though I didn’t really understand how that worked—but at least we’d be able to see what we were doing.

The Nosferatu disdained ranged weapons, probably because of how much money they spent on their bodies. There didn’t seem to be any screamers in this fight, just monstrous men and women tearing into each other with claws and fangs.

We jumped in before they knew what hit them.

I punched one of a fighting pair square in the chin and he went down like a sack of bricks. The woman he had been losing to whipped her tail at me. It was probably poisoned, and I didn’t have very many anti-toxin buffs. So, I snatched it out of the air, grabbing it a few inches from the barbs on the end like you would a snake. She shrieked in rage as I yanked on it hard. These things were still new and weak. She was probably rightly worried that it would come off if I pulled too hard.

She tried to claw at me, but I flicked her hard in the forehead, distracting her. “All I want is your Noble,” I said calmly, masking my fear with long practice. When your enemies can literally smell fear, cowards like me had to be really good at burying it. This one didn’t seem to have an enhanced nose though, so she didn’t notice either way.

She glared at me in hatred. “Broodlord Halifax will not work with baseline scum like you,” she spat. Literally. I don’t think it was intentional, its just the natural result of having too many fangs.

I threw her aside, into a concrete pillar, and she fell to the ground in a heap. I didn’t know which bloodline this Halifax led, and I didn’t particularly care. I just needed to find him and stop him as fast as possible.

Akane was already racking up an impressive body count, but Ling seemed to be having trouble. Two had jumped her at once, and athlete or not, she didn’t have training. Screamers were stupid, but vampires knew how to fight.

I interposed a shield between her and one of her opponents, saving her from his claws. She nodded thanks and went for the other one. The first came after me, angry I had stolen his prey.

I dodged the first swipe of his claws, but he expected that, and managed to stab me in the gut with his other hand. That’s not what the claws were designed for, so they didn’t go in deep enough to hit anything vital, but it still hurt. I had to yank his arm out quickly but carefully to make sure he didn’t take a large chunk of my stomach with it.

He tried to attack with the other arm again, but I grabbed him by the wrist and pulled forward on both arms, knocking him off balance. Before he could regain it, I struck him in the back of the knee, driving him to the ground. I stomped on his wrist with my boot, and it snapped with an audible crunch, undercut by his scream of pain.

“Where’s Halifax?” I demanded.

“I don’t know!” he cried. “I’m with the Guruhi!”

I sighed. Their stupid wars. “Then tell me where your Noble is.”

Shaking, he pointed deeper into the square, at the side most of the Nosferatu seemed to be clustered.

I sighed again. Wonderful.

I backhanded the vampire, knocking him unconscious, before turning to Akane. “I’ll be back. Keep an eye on Ling.”

She nodded, and I headed forward alone against a horde of monsters.

I mostly dodged around the clusters of fighting Nosferatu. I could take any of them one-on-one easy, but they wouldn’t fight me that way, and with my gut still bleeding, I didn’t want to take any chances.

But it quickly became apparent that I wouldn’t have a choice. The vampires were knotted too thickly at my destination for me to just ignore them. Many were engaged in combat, but not all of them. I knocked a few more heads in, threw a couple more people aside, asked a few more questions, and eventually managed to clear a path to where Halifax and Cinder were fighting.

Cinder was the Guruhi Noble, a large man with a short shock of white hair and blood-stained shark teeth. Other than that (and the nighteyes of course), he was surprisingly normal, especially for a Nosferatu. He didn’t even have claws; he was fighting with a pair of wicked short swords, curved with a dozen different kinks and edges, allowing them to inflict maximum pain with each strike. He had a few shallow wounds in his pale skin, but overall seemed to be enjoying the fight more than he should.

His opponent, the Nictuku Noble Halifax, was nearly his exact opposite. He was completely covered in a dark black carapace, including infinitely more delicate armor over his joints. It would offer as much protection as possible while still allowing free range of movement. He still had hair, which surprised me; it was midnight black and cut short to match Cinder’s.

His jaw was a monstrous weapon of destruction, bigger than the biters we had encountered…nine days ago? Silver and gold, had it only been that long? Regardless, while the biters were clearly just enlarged human jaws, Halifax seemed to have built a wood chipper out of teeth and chitin and fused it to his face. Dozens of razor-sharp fangs and small tendrils covered in barbs lined the inner edges, ensuring that each bite did the most damage possible.

His claws, likewise, were massively oversized, scaled more for a gorilla than a man. And it would have been a big gorilla. The claws themselves were six inches long; the fingers they were attached to were a similar length, and seemed ridiculously thin and spindly in comparison. But I knew that was just an illusion. They would be as strong as steel.

The two terrifying vampire Nobles didn’t notice my presence, which I suppose was understandable. But if I didn’t do something quickly, their minions would overwhelm me, if with nothing but numbers. And the girls couldn’t fight forever either. I nearly froze again, both with indecision and fear, until I remembered that every moment spent fighting here, more innocents died elsewhere. I refused to let that happen.

Well, when in doubt, the simplest answer is best.

I conjured a shield between the two, blocking a claw swipe aimed at Cinder. Both men flinched back from the gently glowing blue force field. I doubt it actively hurt their eyes, but vampires get used to assuming any light is going to hurt them.

“Honored Darkstalkers,” I said without preamble or sarcasm. “We are in the middle of a screamer attack. You need to put your feud on hold for the moment.”

Cinder stared at me. “Who the hell are you?” he had a rustic British accent, but I didn’t know enough to be more specific. Not that it particularly mattered.

“I am Derek Huntsman,” I replied calmly. “Leader of the Paladins. Follow me, and we can reinforce the Necessarian redoubt.”

A long, low screeching noise came from the direction of Halifax. It took me a moment to realize he was talking.

Cinder snorted. “Not if mine does it first.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me, Honored Darkstalkers, but I’m going to need an interpreter for Noble Halifax.”

One of the Nosferatu I had thrown aside when I was looking for the Nobles stepped up a little shakily, giving a small bow as she did. “Sorry for interfering, sir, but Noble Halifax said his brood is about to destroy the redoubt. Sir.”

I growled out an epithet unsuitable for children as I pulled out my phone and hit the speed dial. “Laura, what’s your status?”

“We’re under attack by Nosferatu,” she replied calmly. If I couldn’t hear all the shouting and gunfire in the background, I would have thought she was lying. “They got the lights. You should probably fall back.” She hung up.

I shook my head. That girl.

I turned back to the Nobles, who at least hadn’t resumed trying to kill each other yet. The rest of the square was likewise quiet, as word had passed along that I was negotiating with the leaders.

“We’re heading to the redoubt,” I explained, my tone leaving no doubt that I was talking about everyone present. “You will order your men to stand down, and we will fight off the screamers together.”

Halifax laughed and screeched something.

“He said ‘You can’t make us do anything,’” my translator supplied helpfully.

I didn’t bother trying to convince the monster. It would inevitably devolve into a fight, and while I could probably beat him in my condition, it would take far too long. We needed to fall back now.

So that’s what I did. I didn’t say a word, I just turned around and headed back at nothing faster than a walk, Akane and Ling quickly falling into step behind me. The translator hesitated for a moment, but soon followed as well.

Warriors don’t think quite the same as normal people. Honor means some insults are found complimentary, and complements found insulting. The tiniest things can offend a warrior, and even smaller things can make him yours for life.

Turning your back on a warrior is an insult. It’s saying ‘You’re not worth my time. I have better things to do.’

I was out of the square by the time the two Nobles finally gathered their wits. I heard Halifax screech something, and Cinder ordering his men to kill us. But more importantly, I heard the Nosferatu under their command following me. Not chasing me. Following me, at the same slow pace I was taking.

Walking wasn’t the best of ideas, but I knew the way back, and without having to worry about ambushes, we could take a shorter path. All in all, a trip that took twenty minutes out took less than five back.

Once we reached the redoubt, I picked up the pace. The lights were indeed smashed, and the barricade torn aside. Vampires were everywhere, attacking everything in sight. The vampires weren’t the problem. The screamers were.

In the close quarters of the temporary fortress, they infected faster than I could keep track. I couldn’t see them transforming like the general had claimed, but I knew better than to dismiss his words as idle fantasy.

After taking a breath to steel myself, I quickly ordered the Nosferatu to act as support, while I led Akane and Ling directly into the screaming mob.

Like I said, screamers aren’t smart, so they were easier to fight than the vampires. Simple tricks worked on them every time, and they never learned. Akane’s sword killed quickly, and Ling wasn’t skilled enough with her concrete gloves to keep her targets alive, but I tried to simply knock the zombies unconscious as much as possible. A cure could still be in the future.

Eventually, we managed to find Adam and the retinue, on the far side of the redoubt, next to the van. The general and a thin man in uniform were keeping the mob at bay with their pistols. The noise was scaring the crowd of zombies more than the bullets were actually damaging them. Alex was like a beacon, beams of light springing from his hands and blinding anything that got too close.

“Where’s Laura?” I asked as I jogged out of the fire zone. Adam just jerked his head over at the front of the van. There were two people there, wrestling on the ground. With a start, I realized it was Laura and a screamer. She was trying to keep it’s thrashing under control, but was having little luck.

Of course. She was the only one immune, so she had to do it, despite her lack of interest in anything physical. But why didn’t they just kill it? It would be easier all around. Especially since the screamer was a fel. The cat kemos were master escape artists, able to—

I blinked.

A fel? In Nosferatu territory?

And where was Kat?

“Oh no,” I whispered.

Now that I was looking more closely, it was obvious. The fel screamer Laura was wrestling with was indeed Kat. It was the strangest thing; her mouth was open, and I could hear her screaming in my mind, though it was difficult to pick out in the midst of all the others. But no sound escaped her furry lips. She really was mute.

My mouth went into a firm line. I looked back the way we had come; good, Halifax and Cinder were there. They had followed grudgingly, but they had followed. I noted their location, then turned to Alex.

“Daybreak,” I ordered.

He nearly jumped out of his boots, the night vision goggles on his face bouncing. “But won’t that incapacitate our own?”

“No time. Daybreak, NOW.”

He ripped off the goggles, stepped into the empty area between us and the screaming mob, and…

Day broke.

It was like dawn rising, not ten feet in front of me. The angel’s skin shone like every light on Earth at once, and everything within a hundred feet cast deep, dark shadows away from him. I was completely blinded, even though I had my eyes closed, but I was expecting it. Most of the Necessarians had protective goggles, so they weren’t hurt that badly.

The Nosferatu and the screamers were not so lucky.

People think that nighteyes just give you an annoying light sensitivity to go with the super-enhanced nightvision. That is a vast understatement. Bright light doesn’t just blind vampires, it is physically painful for them. Someone once told me that this was like punching a vampire in the brain through the eyes. Seeing the result, I didn’t think it was hyperbole.

Nearly every single screamer fell to the ground, dazed as if they had been kicked in the head. Many of the Nosferatu actually fell unconscious, screaming in pain. Without the power package as a foundation, they just didn’t have the stamina to survive this kind of attack.

Halifax and Cinder stayed standing, as I expected, but they snarled and screeched in fury. I could only barely make out shapes, but I remembered their positions, and marched over to them without delay. Then I kicked Halifax’s legs out from under him and pinned him to the ground. My stomach throbbed and I was getting dizzy from blood loss, but I ignored it. I could last.

“Your stupid fighting cost me a comrade, you honorless bloodsoaked bastard.” I had liked Kat. I didn’t know her very well, but she was smart and capable. “You are going to help me round up these screamers, and if you are very lucky I won’t shoot you in the face when this is over.”

I turned to Cinder and grabbed his shoulder, using that to make sure he was facing the right direction, then kneed him in the balls. He doubled over in pain and started to throw up. The combined effect was just too much for him.

“That goes for you too.” I headed back.

I shaded my eyes as I approached Alex. I still couldn’t see, but hopefully that would prevent permanent damage. “How much longer can you keep this up?”

“A minute. Probably less.” That was the reason I hadn’t just told him to do this from the start. Simple beams of light and subtle glowing was easy, but a full daybreak couldn’t be done very often. “And the screamers are starting to recover.”

What most people forgot about dayeyes was that they worked perfectly in the light. Even this kind of light. Apparently a popular pastime among angels is to just stare directly at the sun. They say its very pretty when it’s not blinding. To Alex, this looked like normal daylight with fewer shadows. He could easily keep an eye on the screamers’ condition.

I had expected them to recover, but the light would be a massive advantage while it lasted. Once it faded, the battle would depend largely on who re-adjusted to the dark first, us or the screamers.

I was betting on the screamers.

“Laura, how’s Kat?”

“Gone,” she reported. “She managed to get free before the daybreak hit.”

I cursed. “Silver and gold. Akane, find her, alive if at all possible. Everyone else, we don’t have time to be nice. Start killing any conscious screamers you find.” It wrenched at me to stoop to such a level, but it was our only choice. Kill a few to save the rest.

I heard Adam’s incredulous voice. “What, blind?”

“That won’t be necessary,” a new voice said. I turned to see a man, standing in the shadow of the van.

No, not a man. A tall angel, of undetermined gender. So almost certainly a full daybreaker. I couldn’t tell what Name he was from; his tattoos were hard to read in the strange light of Alex’s dawn.

“My name is Adele Lucifer. Miss Medina called us, informed us of the situation.”

Well, that was Laura for you. Wait… “Us?”

“Yes.” He gestured behind him, and I was barely able to make out a fleet of vans bearing the Necessarius red-on-black band disgorging an army of doctors and orderlies, lead by a few dozen angels. I had never seen so many in one place before, let alone wearing ‘sarian colors.

“Your Gabriel can stop now,” the Lucifer said patiently, as another angel started a daybreak. “We can handle it from here. Just bring us unconscious screamers, and we can do the rest.”

“Oh good,” I whispered, and collapsed.

It had been an interesting hour.

Behind the Scenes (scene 31)

This was an important scene for a number of reasons, not least because I wanted to show the Paladins actually having trouble. The problem with the screamers (from a storytelling perspective) is that while they’re dangerous to normal people, if you’re immune to infection and a bit careful, they become very easy to deal with. That’s why I brought the Nosferatu in, to show that Derek isn’t invincible. Well, and to remind readers that while Necessarius avoids racism, the rest of the city is not quite as enlightened.

And we have a shop now!  More will be added later.

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Scene 30 – Tempus Transit

TEMPUS TRANSIT

KELLY

“Why weren’t we invited to the party?” George grumbled.

I adjusted my daygoggles a little angrily. “We were. I turned them down. We shouldn’t get that close to them.”

Jarasax rolled his eyes from his spot in the driver’s seat. “Kelly, you make it sound like we can’t even be friends with them. I understand going to the party would be a bad idea, but we can at least be cordial.”

“It’s not like I told her to go screw herself. I just explained that we were on duty, and didn’t have time for that kind of thing.”

I saw something out of the corner of my eye; I turned and caught the tail end of Kat’s fingers flashing in a complicated pattern.

“She’s right on that one,” Alex grunted. It had taken him about two hours to learn Kat’s weird hybrid of sign language and battle-cant. George was still stumbling along. “This is boring. It’s worse than a stakeout.”

“Well, we’re not going to the party,” I insisted. “Or doing another job,” I added as the ogre opened his mouth to speak. “Not after how the last one ended.”

“That’s not my fault,” he grumbled. “How was I supposed to know the client was into bestiality?”

Jarasax shivered. “Let’s not bring this up again. I’m still having nightmares as it is.”

Kat, at least, agreed, and whipped out a portable gaming device to play the game she had bought a few days ago.

That was about the right idea, as far as I could tell, but the rest of us didn’t have anything like that. Blood and shadow, we didn’t even have any books. We really weren’t prepared for this at all. Most of us were used to participating in direct military actions. In Domina, that meant a lot less sitting around waiting for nothing at all.

George, however, was looking at the fel with a thoughtful expression on his face.

“Kat, I have a question.”

She looked up, her ears angled towards him, and signed a quick affirmative. He looked confused at first, but he knew enough to understand that, at least.

“Right. It’s just…” the big ogre chewed his lip, displaying his fangs. “I’m wondering why you’re still mute. It should be easy for the toy maker to fix, right?”

Kat’s ears suddenly stopped moving.

I blinked in surprise and sat up in my seat. This looked like it might be interesting.

I had been wondering that myself. The toy maker had many limits, true, but vocal cords weren’t all that complicated. Even if she lacked them completely, it shouldn’t have been too hard to make new ones. And as an anthro, she obviously had the money for that kind of buff. Blood and shadow, whoever did her anthropomorphization would probably have thrown in the voice for free.

She looked like she was about to sign something…then thought better of it, and quickly signed a negative response.

“Fine,” I sighed. “We’ll stay out of it.” But the rest of the team didn’t seem to be listening to me; they just looked thoughtful. I reached over and pounded the horn, making them all jump. “Won’t we?”

Sax flinched. “Yeah, yeah, of course.” The other two muttered similar affirmatives.

“Of course,” George grunted, “now we’ve got even less to do.”

Alex grinned. “Well, if Kat doesn’t want to share her life story, I guess it’s your turn.”

He laughed. “No, we should hear the boss—”

“No,” I said instantly, in a tone that brooked no argument.

The ogre grimaced. “Fine. My turn it is.”

It took him a minute to get settled; the van would have been a little cramped for five people anyway, but a giant had a lot of difficulty finding even the slightest comfort. Eventually, he decided on sitting in the lotus position on the bare metal floor of the van.

“I was twenty-seven years old when I became an ogre. I had already had some toys installed, but nothing obvious. That was eight years ago, when all the angelic fear-mongering about the vampires was finally starting to lose steam. I wanted power to protect myself from overzealous daybreakers, not nightstalkers.” He nodded to Alex. “No offense.”

The Gabriel grinned. “No worries, brother.”

“I joined up with Lord Gronn, which went about as well as you might expect. I fought in the Battle of Blade’s Edge, barely survived. The Gordoks took me in, and the King took a personal interest in me.” He shrugged. “Not really as impressive as it sounds. Gordok’s tribe is a small one, though most people don’t know it. The King made sure to greet every new recruit, and I caught his eye.

“And when he pissed off Odin, well…Odin caught his eye. Tore it right out of his skull.

“I left after that little fiasco. Amicably, you understand. I had had enough of the Culture Wars. That was…five years ago. Yeah, it was right around the Battle of Shendilavri, so that’s about right. Didn’t actually fight in that one, though. Probably for the best.

“It wasn’t until Hathsin that I joined Necessarius. Alex knows this part—I saw him fighting off a vampire, so I joined in to help.

“I actually meant to help the Nosferatu, but the stupid ferret attacked me the second I pulled them apart, so I ended up snapping his neck. Harder than it should have been, too. He had some kind of spine enhancements—”

“George,” I admonished.

He waved a ham-sized hand. “Right, right. You don’t need the blow-by-blow. Well, after the battle, I joined up with the ‘sarians. Seemed like the thing to do, and they needed men after that.” He shrugged. “And here I am.”

Jarasax raised an eyebrow. “That’s it? I doubt Alex would have suggested you for this if that’s the extent of your achievements. What’d you do after you joined up?”

“A few battles, here and there. Alex will have to tell you why he asked me to sign up for this mission.”

The angel grinned. “I thought it was obvious. The whole thing with the Lolthspire.”

Jarasax and I groaned in unison. “Ugh,” I muttered. “Alex, tell me he’s not another of those.”

“What’s wrong?” George asked with a frown. “It wasn’t even a real fight. Our sniper shot one of the Maidens the Lolths were dealing with, and I let loose some covering fire on the thralls. I don’t think anyone even died. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is that our resident daybreaker has a thing against Lolths. Pretty much all of his suggestions for the retinue fought them at some time or another.” I shook my head. “I should have known you weren’t an exception.”

The giant turned to the angel. “While I appreciate the chance, what’s your beef with the Lolths? They thrall your brother or something?”

Alex rolled his eyes. “Why does everyone always ask that? No, they’ve never done anything to me personally. But they’re a bunch of misandrist thugs who need to be taken down a peg.”

“I don’t think anyone disagrees with you,” Sax reminded him. “You’re just a bit…zealous about it.”

The angel frowned. “That’s not fair. I’m not as bad as Kat.”

The fel’s head snapped up instantly, and she signed for him to shut up.

No,” he said firmly. “I’m not covering for you. I’m not the one who stalks Lolth territory on my time off. I’m not the one who nearly started another war by shooting one of them against orders.”

George blinked. “Wait one second—that was you? You were at the Lolthspire?”

She ground her teeth together and signed quickly, turning her back on the rest of us.

“Oh come on, Kitty,” I admonished, and immediately regretted it. She hated that name. “I mean…you guys have some mutual history. Now’s the time to bond and share and stuff.”

She signed a negative response again. But before any of us could retort, she pointed out the window.

The Paladins were leaving the park.

They’d be fine, of course. It was a birthday party, not a monster hunt or anything. But we still had to keep an eye on them, if only so we were nearby if a screamer attack started again.

The fact that it gave Kat a way out of the conversation was just bad luck.

Behind the Scenes (scene 30)

I was a little leery on George’s exposition here. Just having characters explain what is going on is an easy trap to fall into. But as the newcomer to the group, he is the one most justified to just dump his backstory on everyone.

Of course, not everything in it was completely accurate. You’ll find out what parts later.

EDIT:  Making a few changes to the site design over the next few days.  Please be patient.

Scene 29 – Maleficus

MALEFICUS

LAURA

“Silver and gold, where are they?” I muttered, pacing in front of the dorm. The room had quickly proven too claustrophobic with eight people.

Derek leaned against the side of the building nonchalantly. “Calm down, Laura. They’ll be here soon enough. They’re only a few minutes late.”

The rest of the group was mostly clustered around Akane, chattering about how great her new earrings and necklace looked. She hadn’t removed them since she got them three hours ago. Lizzy was joking that she’d never take them off; I touched my own necklace, with the diamond ring hanging from it.

Some things you just want with you at all times.

“Happy birthday, Akane!”

And some things you want as far away as possible.

Derek jumped. “Mom! Dad! You’re early!”

Adam frowned. “I thought you said your dad was dead?”

Derek turned red as a beet and kept his mouth firmly closed.

“That’s my dad,” I explained. “Unfortunately.”

My father, Victor Medina, was only a few inches taller than me. Like me, he had a very strong European cast to his face—strong bones, pale skin, and jet-black hair, including a short goatee. But while I can barely even remember the last time I honestly smiled, he always had a goofy grin on his face, like nothing was wrong in the world.

“It’s okay,” he said, reaching forward and ruffling Derek’s hair. “I think it’s cute.”

Derek’s mother, Maria Huntsman, chuckled. The Italian woman didn’t look much like her son; she had brown hair and matching eyes, and where he had whip-thin muscles and a strong frame, she was round and full, like a cinnamon bun. Emphasis on the ‘full.’ My chest is about average, but anyone will feel inadequate next to Maria Huntsman.

“Don’t tease them,” she admonished, elbowing my father in the ribs. “This is Akane’s day.” She scuttled over to the girl in question, and handed her a squarish bag filled with tissue paper. “Here, this is for you.”

Akane seemed a little surprised, despite the fact that we had told her this was coming. She dug around for a moment, before pulling out a pair of large fabric bands, probably designed to be strapped on her upper arms. Each band had six knives held carefully in place with small buttons; they could likely be pulled off quickly and easily.

The knives themselves were double-bladed, making them dangerous to handle, and clearly balanced for throwing. These were no-nonsense weapons, with no ornamentation of any kind.

“Nice,” Akane whispered, gazing at the gift in wonder.

Very nice,” Derek added. “How much did those cost?”

My father laughed. “Oh, not too much, just—” He stopped, frowning.

Derek’s mother frowned as well. “Uh…”

I closed my eyes. “Tell me you didn’t.”

Maria shifted on her feet. “Well, not on purpose…”

Derek sighed deeply.

Akane looked pained, but everyone else was confused. Flynn was the one who spoke up. “I’m sorry, what’s wrong?”

Someone forgot to buy Akane’s gift,” I growled.

Adam blinked. “You mean you—”

“Silver moon and golden sun, this is not my fault,” my father insisted, his habitual grin finally gone for the moment. “I was carrying Derek’s present, not Akane’s.” Derek’s birthday was at the end of this month. Well, I guess he was getting weapons again, though that was hardly a shock.

“Did you at least pay for that one?” Derek asked patiently.

My father frowned again. “Well…”

I sighed again. This was hardly the first time they had done this. In fact, thirty years ago, it was the reason they had been sent to Domina in the first place. They ‘borrowed’ a truck, which happened to have several thousand dollars of merchandise in the back. The judge let them off lightly, mostly because they returned everything, but they still got a five-year sentence each. And, of course, prisons aren’t mixed-gender, so they weren’t able to see each other. So when the plans to build Domina were announced, they jumped at the opportunity.

The city was built on a great trash island on the Atlantic, and constructed solely by the cheap labor of white-collar criminals, with their sentences halved as a result. Some left when their terms were up, but many stayed, including our parents.

Of course, even white-collar criminals are still dangerous and unpredictable when left to their own devices, so the city devolved quickly into violent gang warfare. It wasn’t until Butler stepped in, about fifteen years ago, that things finally started to settle down.

But our stupid parents still stole anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.

I flipped out my phone and dialed MC. “My parents stole something again,” I explained tiredly. “Can you debit their account?”

“Of course,” the fake MC replied smoothly. MC had written a few programs for dealing with shoplifters specifically because of these two idiots. “What store, and what were the items?”

“I’ll let them tell you,” I said as I handed the phone off to my father. He took it sheepishly and walked off to somewhere Derek wouldn’t be able to hear, to keep his present a surprise.

“Thank you for the gift, Miss Huntsman,” Akane said quietly, with a very small bow. “I’m sure they will be useful.”

Maria smiled. “Thank Victor. It was his idea.” She clapped her hands together. “Anyway, where’s this picnic spot we’re looking for?”

“It’s over by the south end of campus,” Derek said. “Where’s the blanket and food and everything?”

His mother bit her lip. “I forgot it. It’s at the car. Akane, would you be a dear—”

“Maria,” I interrupted, barely catching myself before calling her something more embarrassing. “It’s her birthday.”

She blinked. “Oh dear.” She patted Akane on the head, avoiding the little cardboard crown she was still wearing. “I’m so sorry about that. Just force of habit. One minute, I’ll be right back.”

I sighed. I really didn’t understand why Akane took orders from those two. Okay, I understood, but it was still a bad idea.

That was about when my father came back; he handed my phone to Akane. “It’s for you.”

She took it, frowning in confusion. “Hello? Wha—MC?”

Akane’s problem wasn’t that she let people take advantage of her; it was that she was completely closed-off except for two or three people. She had ‘too defensive’ and ‘too open,’ with very little in between.

“No, I mean, I’m surprised, but…thank you. Yes, honestly, this is just unexpected. What? Yeah, that was me. They jumped me in an alley. That a problem?”

I listened to Akane’s conversation with only half an ear. Mostly, I was keeping an eye on my father; he was walking towards me purposefully.

“Yes?” I said, trying not to sound too bored. I’ve known for fifteen years that I’m smarter than my father. It’s hard to take him seriously.

But sometimes, like now, he gets such an intense look on his face that I’m forced to remember that he is not completely useless. He was sent to Domina for being a terrible thief, sure, but he was an old friend of Butler for reasons he has never fully explained to me. And I refuse to inquire further.

He led me a little away from the rest of the group, out of their earshot, before turning to look me in the eye.

He didn’t waste any time. “Are you one of the Paladins?”

I tried not to quiver in fear. “Yes. How did you know?”

“Artemis told us,” he lied.

I frowned. My ability might not be very useful, but it could be helpful at times. “No he didn’t.”

He smiled slightly. “Truthtelling, huh? Useful.”

“Not really. How did you know I was one of the Paladins?”

He shrugged. “Artemis did hint that there was something about you we should know, and recommended asking. Given the timeline, this seemed logical.” He glanced at the rest of the birthday group. “I know Derek’s part of it, which means Akane as well. Who else?”

“Ling, Akane’s roommate. And Adam, Derek’s roommate. Adam doesn’t have a power, though. Lizzy has a power, but we’re keeping her out of the action.”

He frowned. “When did you receive these powers?”

“We’re not completely certain, but the morning of August 24th at the latest. Adam came to the city after that, so whatever empowered us did it before then.”

“Hm.” He scratched his beard. “Very interesting. If we can cross-reference that with some of MC’s data, maybe take another look at those DNA tests Isaac ran…”

I shook my head. “Good luck with that, Dad.” I walked back to the group.

Akane was hanging up the phone. “That was MC.”

“We gathered,” Ling said drily. “What’d she say?”

“She…was calling to wish me a happy birthday.”

“Well, that was nice of her.” I smiled. “Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard of her doing that before.”

Akane just nodded dumbly, a small frown on her face.

I quirked my head. “What’s wrong?”

She searched for the words. “I…have friends.”

I blinked. “Well, yeah. What’d you think?”

She just stood there, staring at my phone.

I didn’t really know what to make of that, but Maria came back with an armload of quilts and baskets, saving me from thinking too hard on it.

“Victor, help me out here,” she said with a grunt.

My father laughed. “No way. You need the exercise.”

I frowned. That was a lie? Normally sarcasm passed through my filter. What was going on?

She glared. “You aren’t exactly the picture of health either, beer-gut.”

“What??” he grabbed his belly through his shirt. There was a noticeable bulge. “No, this is just fake padding. I’m actually fit as a fiddle.”

Not a lie. Or at least, it didn’t register as one. Silver and gold, what was going on?

I was distracted by Ling turning and whispering in my ear. “Are they…related?” People always asked that. They fought like brother and sister.

I mentally shelved my questions for the moment and sighed. “No, just crazy.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 29)

I’ve been meaning to do a scene with Maria and Victor for a while, not least to get some of Domina’s backstory out. Laura is vastly simplifying the story, but it hits the key points. More will come later.

Scene 28 – Oblitus

OBLITUS

SIMON

I blinked. “Oh hell, we forgot Akane’s birthday!”

Seena turned and looked at me from where she lay on my roommate’s bed. The lower bed, that is. I had two roommates, and I had gotten the single, while they were stuck with the bunks. “Were we even invited to that? You’re still not exactly her favorite person.”

I tossed my laptop onto my pillow and rubbed my hair back. “Yeah, we were invited. Derek made me promise to not do anything.” I shrugged. “It was mostly to get you there.”

Jelena, also on the lower bunk, looked up from where her head lay on a very embarrassed Yolanda’s lap. “Which one is Akane again? The angry Japanese giant?”

Ugh. Her. “No, that was Umeko. Although she goes by Konoko ever since she became a warlord…” I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Anyway, Akane is Derek’s…something.” I frowned. “You’ve met her, right? The quiet girl with the sword.”

The Glasyan ran her hands through her white-and-black streaked hair and frowned. “…no. No, not that I remember.”

“It was when Derek saved us from that grue,” Delphie reminded her. “She was the one carrying the strobe light.”

Jelena snorted and tapped her daygoggles. “Well, no wonder I don’t remember. The light knocked me out. I lost about six hours.”

The murid, sitting on the upper bunk, just continued laying on her back, petting a small mouse. “I seem to remember you forcing me to track him down so you could ‘thank him properly.’ She was the girl standing next to him when you took off your top.”

Ohh…” the vampire cooed. “That’s right. So it’s her birthday?”

“Yeah. It’s just seven floors down. But if we go now, we’d be crashing the party.”

I saw her doing some quick math in her head. “Wait, she’s actually on the sixth floor? I thought it was just storage.”

“That’s just room sixty-six,” Yolanda said quietly. “For obvious reasons.”

Jelena snuggled a little deeper into the demon’s lap, making herself more comfortable. Yolanda, on the other hand, just started blushing again. “I can understand that. Honestly, I think we’re lucky we even got floor thirteen at all.”

Delphie let her mouse go, and it scurried down the bedpost and out the open door. “What floor are you guys on, again?”

The Glasyan opened her eyes, annoyed. “You were just up there earlier.”

“I know, but I wasn’t really paying attention to the floor number.”

“Twenty-nine. Why?”

“Just curious. I might want to visit or whatever.”

I stretched my legs out over the edge of the bed a bit and leaned back against the wall. “What about you, Delphie? What floor are you and Zusa on?”

“Fourteen.” She leaped down from the bunk, not even bothering with the rudimentary ladder that was more a consequence of the way the beds were stacked than anything intentional. “Which reminds me, I need to get back. Zuzu is getting back from a mission, and needed help with homework.”

“Well, okay,” I said as she walked out. “Don’t be a stranger.”

No one else said anything for a few minutes. Seena had her laptop, Yolanda her book, and Jelena was practically asleep already.

I shrugged, retrieved my own computer, and logged onto Fundie.

Even just glancing at a few blogs made it clear that things were deteriorating. The cultures were fighting, with civil wars popping up everywhere. The warlords were struggling to keep things under control, but they were only having limited luck.

I’m not a soldier, and I have no interest in becoming one. But even I could tell that the more the cultures fractured, the easier time the screamers would have. This was all just falling apart too well to be completely natural.

MC and others were cruising the internet as well, of course, trying to put out the worst fires, urging calm and composure instead of panic, but it wasn’t helping much. There were entire message boards dedicated to nothing but freaking out over the attacks.

It was all way too coordinated. Maybe it was just a couple trolls inciting things for kicks. Or maybe there really was someone behind it all. I was beginning to believe in that ridiculous ‘Composer’ meme, some super-zombie controller acting behind the scenes.

A blank chat window popped up.

I frowned. As the newest sibriex, getting messages from unknown demons was something I was used to. But this wasn’t that. The window was completely empty, which shouldn’t happen. Normally, it only popped up after someone messaged me. Not only that, but the spot where the name and avatar of the other person would normally be was blank.

Then a message appeared.

<Ever ever dies the storm.>

“Nine hells!” I spat vehemently. The girls all looked up, even Jelena, but I just smiled and waved away their worries. They shrugged and went back to what they were doing.

I had seen that phrase before, and suddenly knew exactly who was talking to me. I should have known from the start. No one else was that unnecessarily mysterious.

<Ever ever dies the night,> I typed back carefully, making sure to get the capitalization right. She was picky about that.

<Ever ever lies the fight> appeared next.

I took a deep breath and typed the last code phrase. <Ever ever lies the morn.>

Even through the impersonality of text, I could still feel her grinning. <Hello, Simon.>

I gulped before replying. <Hello, Honored Matron.>

I normally didn’t bother with the honorifics. It was one of the reasons I had become a sibriex in the first place; they didn’t care about any of those stupid titles. It was a place I could do my work without worrying about offending anyone.

But the Queen of Loveless, Matron of Night’s Northern Winter, cared. And offending a fey was never, ever a good idea. It was the middle of autumn, and day at that. Normally the fey didn’t stray out of their prescribed domains, but more and more I was finding that to be less than accurate propaganda.

<Always so polite,> the fey messaged back mockingly. <How is your sister?>

<Don’t talk about her,> I typed back angrily. <What do you want?>

<Well, you see, I have this egg I bought from a friend of mine…>

My heart nearly froze in my chest. I knew where this was going. <Don’t do that.>

<And I was thinking, “It’s practically a crime to just keep such a beautiful specimen in storage. I should really start growing it.”>

I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood. <stop>

<Applying toys to a fetus produces incredible results. Truly breathtaking.>

<stop talking>

<Of course, I suppose if I was distracted with something else, I wouldn’t have time…>

<WHAT do you WANT>

<First and foremost, punctuation,> she admonished.

I took a deep breath, wiped the blood off my lip, and typed again. <What do you need, Honored Matron?>

<That’s better. Is it really so hard to take an extra few moments to compose yourself?>

<Says the naked girl.>

<Oh! So you have a tongue in your head after all! I was beginning to wonder.> There was a pause, and I knew she was chuckling to herself. <But my choices of apparel—or lack thereof—are of no concern to you. I just need one little thing. And then I’ll be far too busy to play with the egg your sister sold to the Queen-Mother of Dayborn Light.>

I glanced across the room to Seena, still typing away at her own laptop.

Nine hells, what could she have been thinking, dealing with a fey? If I hadn’t managed to convince Loveless to buy the egg, Seena’s daughter would be running around town, filled to the gills with more toys than the Mother Monster herself.

But she was my sister. Protecting her was my job.

<What do you need?>

<Nothing much. I just need a copy of the sibriex’s Helix.>

Oh shit.

The Helix was a record of the toy maker experiments, as well as the buffs and cosmos of members. Every culture had one, usually only noting the more interesting creations they utilized. But more toy-centric cultures, like the sibriex, had extremely detailed records, both of the toys we had and the many experiments we had done. It wouldn’t be an understatement to call them state secrets; if the Glasyans or Clarke got their hands on it, the sibriex would be at a major disadvantage.

<Yes or no, Lancaster. You know the way this works.>

I didn’t have a choice.

<Yes.>

<Excellent! A courier will be by shortly with the flash drive. Just put it into the Helix system, and it will hack its way through quickly.>

<How long will it take?>

<Anywhere from five minutes to an hour, including the actual download. Sorry I can’t give more detail, but I just don’t know enough about the system to be sure. You have one week.>

The chat window disappeared, even though normally I would have to specifically cancel it out.

I sighed. Wonderful. What exactly had I gotten myself into this time?

A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door, despite the fact that it was already open a crack. “Hello?” a gruff voice called. “Everyone decent?”

“Yeah,” I answered, a little tiredly. “C’mon in.”

My roommates, Steve and Kevin walked in with only a little hesitation. Steve smiled at the girls. “Hello, all.”

He was a big black baseline with light brown skin and a shiny shaved head. He had a bit of fat around his belly, but mostly his size was the result of big bones and strong muscles. He was always smiling, and had a round face well-suited to it.

Kevin frowned a little at the girls, before climbing up onto his bunk and pulling out his laptop. He was a bit harder to read. He was a small South-American man, also baseline, and he didn’t talk much. But his sharp black eyes missed nothing, and when he did speak he did so with a tongue as sharp as a knife.

Seena looked up from her own laptop. “Hey there. Where were you guys?”

Steve shrugged. “Had a few jobs to do.” He a deep, gruff voice that didn’t match his personality at all. He had mentioned when he got drunk a few days ago that it scared the kids at his orphanage. “And Kevin tagged along as my bodyguard.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Wait, I thought you were out of ammo?”

My other roommate frowned from his bunk. “I was. Went out with him to get more. He’s just being weird.” He turned back to his laptop. “Didn’t find good prices, though. Just got a box for my pistol.”

That got Yolanda’s attention. “What do you use?”

“Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special.”

“Oh,” she scrunched up her face into an adorable frown. “I don’t think I’ve heard of that one.”

“Yeah, no one has,” he admitted. “That crazy lace who thinks she’s a dragon—”

“Gonna have to be more specific,” Jelena noted without even opening her eyes.

Kevin continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “She only made them on special order.” He unholstered it and dangled it down from his bunk; Yolanda took it carefully. “I’m sure you can see why.”

“Interesting design,” the demon girl noted dimly, as she turned the strange weapon over in her hands. It was built like a revolver, but it had five stationary barrels, arranged around a solid center.

I leaned forward to get a closer look. “How many shots do you get out of that thing?”

He chuckled lightly. “Just one. But if you use armor-piercing bullets, you can kill a warlord with that one shot. If you’re lucky.”

I whistled as Yolanda passed the weapon back up. “Now that’s a hand cannon.”

Jelena addressed the girl who’s lap she was laying in. “What’s Pam’s, again?”

“Standard Necessarian Saint Jude,” the demon answered promptly. “Though she said she also has a Black Knight ZF740 that she never uses.”

I bit my lip. “740…isn’t that the one with the manufacturing flaw? Explodes in your hands?”

“750,” she corrected. “But you can understand why she leaves it at home.”

“Let’s switch to a less violent topic,” Steve suggested. “What have you guys been up to all day?”

Yolanda shrugged. “Just reading. It’s a Saturday. Not much else to do.”

“We should probably get a present for Akane at some point,” Seena noted lazily.

“I’ll go out later and buy a sharpening set.”

My midnight-skinned sister turned and glared at me. “Are you an idiot? She has a billion of those. We need something more unique.”

I threw up my hands. “Well, I don’t know. What else is there? We’re not exactly rolling in cash, you know.”

She sighed. “It doesn’t have to be big. Something small and easy would work just as well.”

Steve blinked. “Huh. That reminds me.” He fished around in his pocket and pulled out a rolled-up small white envelope, like the kind people use for letters, and handed it to me. “Sorry about that. Courier office gave it to me about an hour ago, and it slipped my mind.”

Other than ‘Simon Lancaster’ written across the front in delicate script, the envelope was unmarked and still sealed. There was something inside, but I couldn’t quite tell what. It definitely wasn’t a letter, though. I opened it up and…

Pulled out a flash drive. The kind you plug into a USB port.

My big roommate raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn’t plug that into any computer you want to keep. Flash drives from anonymous sources—”

“It’s fine,” I said, swallowing my anxiety and willing my heartbeat to slow back to a normal pace. “I know who sent it.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 28)

The Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special is definitely not a real gun. However, it’s based off the much more plausible (but still fake) Tiamat Raaze 4.4, which is just an ordinary 4.4 caliber revolver.

Other than that, I really like how this one came out. I originally created Simon and Seena for little reason other than to have a few POV characters who didn’t know the Paladins’ secrets, but they’ve evolved into their own since.