Scene 61 – Insidiis Mures

INSIDIIS MURES

DELPHIE

My name is Delphie Murinae. I am a murid, a mouse kemo. We’re not exactly a very organized culture, but we do have one warlord.

My sister.

Like me, she still looked baseline, with long brown hair tied up in an elegant bun. She was taller than me by a good foot, which put her a little above average, with the same chocolate-colored eyes as me. But unlike me, she always had an unflinchingly serious look on her face, as though she were doing the most important thing in the world.

She was dressed in furs and leathers—mouse furs, which are a lot harder to stitch together nicely than you’d think. Some people didn’t even realize it was clothing at first, she wore so much of it.

But that wasn’t what marked her as the Alpha of the Murids.

Sitting lazily in her lap was a lean and dangerous rat, six feet long with a tail of equal length. Panay was currently curled up in a ball, asleep, but I knew he would be awake in seconds if his mistress was in danger. Unlike his wild brethren, his fur was clean and groomed, but he was not pampered. He had to catch everything he ate; he was just well-trained enough not to overeat like most of his kind. Combined with his buffs, the result was a creature of whip-like muscles and unbreakable teeth that could kill a baseline bear without any difficulty.

Like me, my sister had internal pheromone buffs that let her control rats and lesser rodents. Unlike me, she used hers to recruit and train an army of animal companions.

The Queen-Mother of Fevered Day smiled at us from where she stood before my sister’s chair. “So why have you called me here, Plague?”

My sister had a real name, which I thought was quite beautiful, but she disagreed. She insisted on being called the Lady of the Plague, referencing her power base—dangerous, disease-carrying rodents. She didn’t seem to notice how pretentious it sounded.

She answered the fey instantly. “We need to get in touch with the Composer.”

My sister hadn’t gotten to be warlord by being polite and gentile.

To her credit, the fey just raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Interesting. May I ask why?”

“You should know. Weren’t the fey planning to join him?”

Fevered Day grinned. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.” She leaned forward, eyes narrowed. “Either way, I doubt you want to become an amhránnaí or caoin. No, you want to become like the Paladins. A cainteoir.”

My sister stroked Panay behind the ears. “If that’s what you want to call it.”

“Well, unfortunately, we have had very little luck finding the Cumadóir. Whenever we think we might be zeroing in, it moves.” The naked woman shrugged. “I am sorry. We had a number of questions we wished to ask it as well.”

“I really thought you would already know. My spies tell me the burners were looking for Killing Sparrow.”

“They didn’t find her.” The fey did not elaborate.

My sister closed her eyes. “Please don’t be difficult. I don’t see a reason why we cannot work together towards a common goal here. We both want to meet the Composer. We can do that, if we work together.”

“I remember what happened last time we worked together,” the Crone noted with a giggle. “I put you in a toy box, stuffed you with enough buffs to become a warlord.” Her gaze, no longer friendly and happy, turned to me. “And in exchange, your sister took enough fertility drugs to let a corpse give birth.” She grinned cruelly. “Which reminds me…how are those triplets of yours doing, dearest?”

I bristled. “You know I’m staying out of their lives.”

The fey shrugged. “Understandable. Though you should know, little Melanie recently decided she wanted to be an Alpha when she grows up.” The grin came back, and her eyes flicked to my sister. “Interesting, don’t you think?”

I stalked forward, but my sister grabbed my arm before I could do anything too rash. It didn’t stop me from talking, though. “You stay away from them. If I hear you’ve so much as touched them—”

She rolled her eyes and waved her hand, dismissing my threats as empty air. “You don’t even know where they are. What are you going to do? Ask MC to search for every three-year-old in the city?”

“She can narrow it down by birthdate, and the fact that they’re triplets will make it easier too.”

The cruel grin returned. “Who said I put them in the system under their birthdates? Or kept them together, for that matter?”

I ground my teeth together. “You crazy—”

“Stop,” my sister said, and I did. “You gave them up. Deal with it.”

Chastised, I nodded. My situation was hardly normal, but I had made my choices. And teenage parents who put their babies in orphanages were common enough that I didn’t really have a right to complain in normal company.

However, when one of the people I was talking to was my sister, who had children nearly as old as I was, complaining was just plain stupid. She was a better mother than I could ever hope to pretend to be.

The fey’s gaze turned to the Alpha. “That reminds me. How are your little ones? Your son is…eight?”

“Ten,” Plague corrected. “Gwenyth is eight.”

Our naked guest nodded. “Right, right. Knew one of them was eight.”

My sister had never been one for small talk, and this was quickly straying into forbidden topics. “Is there a point to this, Crone? If you can’t help us find the Composer, I think this meeting is over.”

The long-haired woman shook her head. “So impatient…tell me, Dame Plague, why exactly do you want to find the creature who is stalking your streets?”

“I told you. We want powers.”

The Crone scoffed. “From an unknown, insane zombie lord? Please. You’re far too careful to trust your fate to anything you don’t understand.” She leaned forward. “So why don’t you tell me what you’re really after.”

The Lady of the Plague didn’t speak for a few minutes. Whether she was just choosing her words or honestly contemplating the fey’s accusation, I couldn’t tell.

“The toy maker,” she began finally. “Was the most important advancement the human race has ever made. Clarke and Butler leveraged it into essentially owning this city.” She narrowed her eyes. “And now we have superpowers running around.”

The Crone grinned. “You want to be the Cumadóir.”

“Whoever the Composer is, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. In his position, I would use and dole out these powers far more responsibly.”

“Somehow I doubt that, sweetness. I also doubt you’d have a chance against him. He’s eluded Necessarius for some time now, which speaks volumes. And I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors.”

The warlord of the murids rolled her eyes. “Yes, that he’s an immortal body-jumper from an ancient civilization that destroyed itself in its own hubris. I heard.” She waved her hand airily. “But if he was immortal, he wouldn’t be bothering with the whole show—he’d be fighting on the front lines.”

“And that last part is clearly a ripoff of the Atlantis myth,” I added.

My sister nodded. “That too. Memetic mutation is spinning his reputation out of control, but that’s nothing new. I’m sure you remember the rumors from right after Orcus died.”

The fey chuckled. “Oh, yes, those were entertaining. I especially liked the ones about him returning as an undead prince bent on vengeance.” She grinned. “There were some people who really got into it, too. Read anything under the name ‘Tenebrous’ and you’ll see what I mean. They’re very entertaining.”

“Back on topic,” Plague growled. “Can you help us or not?”

The Queen-Mother of Fevered Day grinned. “Not. And honestly, I wouldn’t even if I could. You have little to offer me.” She rose to go.

“Wait.” My sister looked pained, but she spoke without hesitation. “If you help us, I’ll give you Heather’s body.”

I think my heart stopped in my chest. She couldn’t actually be thinking…

The Crone’s grin seemed to split her face in half. “You’ll actually give me your daughter’s body? No strings attached?”

Heather’s body,” she insisted. It’s not that she didn’t view the girl as her daughter or anything like that, but she had another daughter to worry about, and with the fey you had to be specific about that kind of thing. “Payment upon delivery of the information. Deal?”

The fey paused, thinking, then shook her head. “No. That could be months. She’s been dead for days already. Payment now or no deal.”

The Lady of the Plague ground her teeth. “Fine. She’s stored in the Warren of the Unforgotten. I’ll let the gravekeeper know you’re coming.” She reached for her phone in her pants pocket, but Panay squealed slightly in protest.

“No need to hurry,” our naked guest insisted as she rose. “I don’t quite have time right now anyway. Just make sure you call before the end of the day.” She brushed her hair carefully. “One of my other homunculi is escorting a package, and I need to keep my attention on that.” She winked at me slyly. “Thank you for the hospitality, girls. I’ll show myself out.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 61)

The kemo cultures vary considerably in size and influence. Many, such as the cherves (deer kemos), daes (squirrel kemos), hystrics (porcupine kemos), leapers (rabbit kemos), and visons (mink or ferret kemos) don’t have any organization at all; they’re just individuals who liked the way a cosmo looked. These “quasi-cultures” are the ones who get discriminated against the most, without numbers to lend them strength.

However, it is not uncommon for quasi-cultures to become full-fledged cultures through the influence of a charismatic warlord. This is what happened to the murids, with the Lady of the Plague, and the aves, with Soaring Eagle.

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Scene 60 – Caro Artibus

CARO ARTIBUS

JELENA

My name is Jelena Aune. I am a Glasyan of the Third Circle; third out of Nine, with higher being better. In other words, I’m not very important.

But it was for that very reason that Noble Glasya liked to take me along to meetings. She waved it off to everyone else as me being her assistant (I did make very good tea), but I knew she valued my keen political ear far more than my beverages.

But still, I had to play the part, so I carefully placed a cup of tea on a saucer in front of our guest.

“Thank you, Honored Nightstalker,” the naked woman said graciously. She was a beautiful twenty-five year-old woman with flawless pale skin and very long brown hair pooled behind her. She carefully lifted the teacup and blew on it until it cooled, then took a sip. “Yes, thank you indeed.”

The Queen-Mother of Fevered Day, the Crone of Night’s Eastern Autumn, appeared mostly baseline, except for her marble-black nighteyes. But I knew better than to be fooled by her appearance; she’d be stronger and faster than me by an order of magnitude. Glasya would probably be able to keep up with her, but Fevered Day’s body was just an expendable homunculus, which gave her a large advantage.

Not that this would come down to a fight. Glasya wasn’t that stupid.

My warlord sat down in the chair opposite the fey very carefully, not making any sudden movements. She was a gray-skinned vampire with dusky black hair in a long braid, dressed in a cute ankle-length skirt and a truly marvelous corset. There was nothing really unique about her appearance; our culture favored internal toys.

“Forgive me, Honored Crone,” Glasya said after a few minutes of the fey just enjoying her tea. “But can we get down to business? It’s been a while since you requested a meeting.”

The naked woman smiled as she put her cup back on the saucer. “Oh, I just figured that it seemed like a good time to tell you about the side effects of the toy box.”

My warlord froze. I was able to resist doing the same and continue preparing more tea on the table behind her, but only barely.

Necessarius had built a few dozen toy boxes and used them each several times a day. If they had side effects, we were in serious trouble. Even if it was something minor, Butler would come down on our culture like an airstrike.

Glasya tried not to let her anxiety show, but she was having trouble. “You didn’t mention anything before.”

The crone grinned. “Now, where would be the fun in that?”

I heard the leather armrests of the chair squeak as Glasya gripped them, likely to keep herself from strangling her ally.

“In the future,” she said with admirable calm. “I would prefer to be given a full list of any and all side effects you know of before the transaction is finished.” She plastered on a fake smile. “Now, what is the problem in this case?”

The fey tapped her chin thoughtfully. “You know, ‘side effects’ might be the wrong phrase. The device itself works exactly as intended.” She waved her hand. “No, the problem is the security system.”

I raised an eyebrow. I had seen the blueprints, and while I was no engineer, I knew enough to be sure there hadn’t been anything like that. The ‘sarians definitely would have noticed guns or whatever when they were playing around with it.

But Glasya just forced a smile. “Please, continue.”

The Queen-Mother of Fevered Day leaned forward, her breasts jiggling distractedly, and smiled. “Did your tech-priests notice a filter when they were taking the device apart?”

“They’re not our engin—tech-priests. But I vaguely remember seeing something like that. Why?”

“It modifies the air passing through it,” the fey explained. “Uses a few control nodes to introduce an artificial pheromone, and pumps it back out.”

“To what purpose?”

The fey grinned. “Come now, Noble Glasya. Surely you can figure it out?”

The vampire warlord narrowed her marble-black eyes. “No, I can’t. What is it?”

The grin grew wider. “It plants a very specific desire in the mind of anyone who inhales it. An obsessive, illogical compulsion to keep the toy box safe at all costs.” She tapped her lip. “Of course, there is the slight side effect of dementia, eventually leading to the afflicted to decide everyone nearby is a threat who must be eliminated…”

I closed my eyes. That was…bad. But not as bad as it could be. The Necessarian version of the box didn’t have that device, because it was open-air and they hadn’t seen the need for what seemed like just an air filter. But the original was still a problem.

I wasn’t quite clear on who had it right now. According to the news, it was the aves, but they were a weak culture; it had probably already been stolen from them again. Especially if everyone nearby was compelled to keep it ‘safe.’

“There is other news,” the Crone admitted, and my eyes snapped open. “There is a very small segment of the population who are immune.”

She took a sip of tea.

Who?” Glasya demanded, finally getting impatient.

The Crone smiled. “A small control group. One hundred randomly selected blocks were chosen. We then piped a…vaccine, of sorts, into their water supply, and watched what happened.” She frowned. “Two of the blocks were still affected, though. We’re not quite sure why.”

My boss brushed her hair back with a shaking hand. “I’m going to need a list of those blocks which are immune.”

The fey’s grin was back.

“You want something in return,” Glasya noted flatly. There was no denying it. We really should have expected this from the start. The fey don’t request meetings just to chat. Well, okay, sometimes they do, because they’re all as crazy as a bag of wet cats, but usually not.

“Nothing much,” Fevered Day assured us. “We’ll even return her to you, as sane as when we got her.” Her perpetual smile widened. “I swear it on the Zero Forge.”

This was always the case with the fey. It took a lot of haggling to even get them to accept money at all. Normally, they preferred people. Very specific people. Usually, they were never returned. Occasionally they escaped, with no memories of their previous lives, and became changelings.

My warlord rubbed her forehead. “Let me guess. The same as you wanted for the toy box: A dozen virgins, six male and six female, all eighteen.” She locked gazes with the naked creature in front of her. “The answer is still no.”

But the grin didn’t disappear. “Oh, Honored Nightstalker, this is why I love you. You never give up on your principles. But I just want one this time.”

“I’m still not going to give you some random—”

“Her,” the fey declared. It took me a second to look up and realize what was going on.

She was pointing at me.

“No,” Glasya said instantly. “No, no, no. No way in the blackest night.”

“You’ll get her back…”

“No!” the warlord was standing now, the chair flung back against the wall. Her rage was barely contained—at least she hadn’t actually attacked Fevered Day. “I refuse!”

The Crone sighed. “Really, dearest, one little girl is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things.”

“No, I refuse to sacrifice—”

“I’ll do it.”

Both women turned to stare at me. The shock on Glasya’s face was expected. But I was surprised to see, however briefly, a similar look on the fey’s. She hadn’t thought she’d get her way. But that didn’t make any sense. The fey were arrogant bastards who were convinced they would always win.

But the look was gone so fast I could almost convince myself I imagined it.

The naked woman stood, strode forward, and gripped my arm tightly. “Good choice, Honored Nightstalker. I’ll send the information back once we’ve reached my Court.” She turned to my warlord. “Three days, Noble Glasya. And then you’ll have her back.” She grinned again. “Wouldn’t want you running out of tea, now would we?”

As the Queen-Mother of Fevered Day dragged me out of the room, I glanced back to see one of the most powerful women in the city on her knees, sobbing.

She looked exactly as if she had just been told her best friend was dead.

Behind the Scenes (scene 60)

Important for a number of reasons, and not just Jelena’s capture.

Scene 59 – Furtum

FURTUM

SIMON

The sibriex only had a single building to our name: Arhestanots, the Fleshworks. It’s right at the edge of South Middle, only a few blocks from both South-West Middle and South Central. It was pretty far from the domain of any other culture, which was a good thing. We might like playing with the toy maker, but that didn’t mean we were soldiers.

Arhestanots was a small skyscraper, only thirty stories. Our most sensitive data was secured on floor twenty-five, a floor without windows or any entrance except for one closely-watched door.

It was disturbing, really, how easy it was to break in. Obviously, I had an easier time than most due to my membership, but I had still managed to hack my way into our data center with nothing but a pad and some off-the-shelf virus programs. I couldn’t help but think it would have been much more difficult if we had even a single guard physically watching the door.

But I suppose it was a good thing it was so easy. It was Friday night. It was my last chance to steal the Helix for the Queen of Loveless, and the fey were not known for their leniency. And if there had been a guard…I don’t know what I would have done.

And I don’t want to know.

This wasn’t the first time I had done something stupid for my sister, but usually it was small things. Stealing candy when we were kids, that sort of thing. Not treason.

Well, it was too late to back out now.

I crept through the rows of servers, my breath creating little puffs of fog in front of my face. It wasn’t actually freezing, but it was pretty damn close, in order to keep the servers as cool as possible. I had never been here before, but I knew the layout well enough. Even a low-ranked member like myself had access to the blueprints.

When I reached the center of the room, however, I found out that not everything is on the blueprints.

There was…something in front of me. It was hard to tell in the dark, but nestled between three servers creating an open-faced box was a mass of pink flesh ten feet high and about five wide. It was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and smelled terrible—at least the cold dulled it a bit. Sparse hair sprouted here and there, mostly on the thing’s rounded top, which was far too lumpy and misshapen to be called a head. The mound of flesh shrank back as I watched, then expanded again, then shrank back…

It was breathing. It was alive.

Then it’s eyes snapped open, and I jumped about three feet.

They were located almost dead-center in its chest, and as big as golf balls. They were a harsh silver, matching the fog and mist of the server room, and positioned just over what I now realized was a closed mouth.

Then the mouth opened, revealing a too-large tongue and broken, twisted teeth.

“Sibriex?” the mouth asked, in a deep, rumbling male voice.

I opened my mouth to speak…then closed it again. I couldn’t find the words.

“SIBRIEX?” the creature asked again, punctuating its demand with a turret that collapsed out of the ceiling and pointed itself at me.

“Yes!” I said, finally finding my wits. “Yes, yes, I am a sibriex.”

There was a long rush of air, which I slowly realized was a sigh.

“Never get to shoot anything,” the creature muttered. Then its eyes fixed on me again. “Password?”

I swallowed. “I’m sorry?”

Password,” it repeated, and the turret whirred as it prepared to fire. “Any real sibriex would know the password.”

“I’m new!” I insisted. “I don’t know any password!”

“It is the fourth thing sibriex are taught, imposter,” the fleshy beast hissed. “You would have learned it on your very first day.”

I blinked. Wait, the fourth thing I had been taught was…

“Never leave an experiment unattended, no matter how harmless it seems?”

That rush of air again, and the turret withdrew. “Correct.” He grumbled to himself. “Never get to shoot anything…”

“Uh, right,” I said a little anxiously. “Wh-who are you, exactly?” I had been about to say what, but had a feeling that wouldn’t have gone over too well.

The mouth laughed, spewing some fluid I didn’t want to identify all over my black sweatpants and sweater. “They still haven’t told you?” The mound of flesh quivered with amusement. “Narek said they were keeping me hidden, but I didn’t think he meant from our own culture.”

I blinked. Narek Nhang was the sibriex warlord…well, I use ‘warlord’ a bit loosely. More like CEO. He was far more interested in experimenting with the toy maker than politics and violence. Then again, that described most sibriex pretty well.

“I…don’t understand why he would hide you,” I said slowly. “From anyone, not just us.”

There was a long, long pause.

The fluid on my clothes slowly began to drip onto the floor.

“Frozen hells,” the creature finally muttered. “You’re serious. Are you an idiot?”

I frowned. “No need to be rude. I just don’t get it. However you were made, you’re clearly an impressive use of the toy maker. Why wouldn’t he want to show you off?”

“You kids have skewed priorities,” he grumbled. He was speaking easier now. I wondered if that was because he hadn’t spoken in so long and needed to warm up first, or if he had just been faking before. “What do you think the Servants would do if they discovered me?”

The Servants were…hard to categorize. Based in the Cathedral, they were the closest thing Domina City had to an organized religion. Sure, we had a few churches here and there to every major religion and quite a few minor ones, but none of them had really taken root. The Servants had grown from the city itself, and thus had a much stronger following. Even though most people thought their beliefs were a bit weird, they were highly respected for their humanitarian efforts.

But what would they do if they found a creature like this?

“Probably nothing, actually,” I said slowly. They just weren’t hostile in general. “I’m not sure why you’d think otherwise. Besides, they have a lot more on their plate than worrying about one slightly creepy experiment.”

The creature laughed again. “It’s cute that you think that. Haven’t you ever wondered—wait. What’s on their plate right now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, they’re pretty involved with cleaning up after the screamers. They don’t really have time for much else.”

The mound of flesh shivered. “Screamers? That a new subculture or something?”

I blinked. Huh. “When’s the last time you talked to someone, or checked Fundie or anything?”

His eyes closed. “Ahh…not sure. Six months for the internet…about a month since I saw an actual person.” The mound of flesh quivered. “But that’s not so strange. I mostly just keep an eye on our servers here.”

I rubbed my hair back. “Right…I’m guessing you stay off the internet to stay out of MC’s sight.”

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “I don’t know what she’d do to me, and don’t particularly want to find out. However,” his tone turned serious again. “You’re avoiding the subject. What are these screamers you mentioned? Last I heard the Rahabs were the only gang that was still giving Necessarius trouble.”

I closed my eyes. “Superpowered zombies.”

He chuckled. “No, really.”

“Really,” I replied seriously. “I figured you wouldn’t believe me, but its the truth.”

“Uh-huh,” he deadpanned. “I’m sure—” He stopped talking suddenly. “That’s odd.”

“What is?”

“My scans indicate you’re telling the truth. That’s very…odd.” He quivered again. “Do me a favor—see that loose cable behind you?” I searched behind me and found an inch-thick cable next to a nearby server. “Yeah, that’s the one. Hook it up to that port there, would you?”

I did as the creature suggested, and heard the hum of another machine powering up. “That your internet connection?”

“Yeah…” he muttered, his eyes distant. He licked his…I’d like to say lips, but he didn’t really have them. He licked the area around his mouth with a too-long tongue. “One second, I’m just gonna—”

He stopped. Dead.

Crap, had I killed him? “Uh…dude? You alive?”

He gurgled wetly. I couldn’t tell if that was a confirmation or one last death throe.

“I’m gonna go find help,” I promised. Hell if I knew what I’d tell anyone to explain my presence, but I’d think of something.

But just before I ran off, he recovered. “No, no, I’m fine. Just…” He swore in a language I didn’t recognize. “Dzhokhk…need a minute to digest all this.”

I could relate. The entire city was still reeling a bit. Between the biters, the burners, the bats and the bleeders…it was a lot to take in.

He spoke up sooner than I expected. “Has anyone been able to determine where these powers come from? What they are, how they work?”

I shrugged. “By now, you probably know more than I do. All I know is that Doctor Clarke is working around the clock to figure that out, but he hasn’t reported any results.”

“I need to talk to MC,” he muttered. “Wonderful.”

“Uh, didn’t you just say—”

“Let me rephrase that: You need to talk to MC for me.”

I blinked. “Wait, how’s that work?”

“We’ll set up an anonymous server that I can look at. I might not be as good as her, but I can at least make sure she can’t detect me. Then, you ask her questions.” He grinned with that mouth too-full of teeth. “Simple.”

“That’s not what I meant. Why me? Surely there’s someone else better suited.”

He grunted in annoyance. “Did you miss the part where I haven’t seen anyone in a month? Nhang and I aren’t on good terms.” He quivered. “No, you’ll have to do. Tell me your e-mail address, and we can get down to business.”

I opened my mouth to complain—then quickly shut it again as a thought occurred to me. I could use him. He’d realize I was using him, of course, but this was still the perfect opportunity.

“I’ll do that,” I said slowly. “But first you have to do something for me.”

There was a short pause.

“This is the part where you tell me,” he said after a moment, annoyed.

I winced. Not the best start. “Right. I need a copy of our Helix. Without there being any trace it was copied.”

He licked his teeth. “Hm…simple enough. Of course there’s always the risk…I assume you have a flash drive ready?”

I almost said yes, but thought better of it. “No. I don’t have any with the spare space.”

“Good,” he said, quivering in what I thought was a nod. “I half expected you to try and upload a virus.”

That was my worry too, actually. I could imagine plenty of reasons the Queen of Loveless would want the record of the sibriexs’ experiments—but I could think of many more reasons why she would want the creature that kept an eye on our servers dead or incapacitated in some way.

One of the servers that made up his little nest spat out a flash drive, which I retrieved carefully.

“That has everything you need,” he promised. “Check it, if you like.”

I did, plugging it into my pad and scanning through it quickly. It was just text, which I was thankful for. My programming skills were sub-par, but it was harder to hide things in a pure text file. A quick glance was enough to tell me that it at least seemed in order.

I removed the drive, pocketed it, and bowed deeply. “Thank you very much. I look forward to working with you.”

“And now for your end,” he prompted. “Your screen name?”

“Obyrith576,” I replied without hesitation. “Spelled the normal way.”

“Hm, good,” he muttered. “Found it.” His eyes darted up to my face. “When’s the last time you updated your picture?”

I winced. Long before I got my skin and hair cosmos, that was for sure. “Maybe…a year?”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, this is clearly you. I’ll contact you soon and give you instructions for the interview.” His tone had a sense of finality to it, and I knew it was time to go.

But before I did, a thought occurred to me, and I turned back to him. “What’s your name, anyhow? You never said.”

He grinned, too many teeth shining in the dim lights of the servers. “Aramazd.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 59)

This took much longer than it had any right to.

Scene 58 – Salutem

SALUTEM

LING

I was flying.

Well, floating. Using the stone plates in my armor, I was able to levitate myself. Not for long; only five minutes or so. But I was getting better, my reservoir was expanding, and I was finding more and more uses for the armor. Sure, levitation was the coolest, but I could also use it to enhance my strikes and dodge faster.

It was a perfect focus for my power, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. This kind of thing happened all the time in shows; now that I had the idea, I could name a half dozen anime or comics where they used similar tricks. So why hadn’t I come up with it before?

I was too complacent, that was the problem. Go to school, play soccer, kill screamers, sleep. I wasn’t spending enough time actually thinking. Sure, Laura was better at it than me, but if I approached everything from a different angle, I might be able to find something she missed.

I was on the roof of the dorm at the moment, where no one really hung out. It was the perfect place to practice, but the sun was basically set, and I really didn’t want to accidentally float over the edge and find out if I could catch myself from a fall. So I went back down, using the elevator rather than the stairs. Well, I had to use the stairs to get back into the building, but the elevator was fine for the rest. No sane person would try to run down thirty-one floors.

Focus. I needed to think about tactics.

But what was I supposed to do? This was out of my comfort zone. Zombies weren’t a common anime topic, for whatever reason.

No, no. I was looking at it wrong. None of my interests would be directly useful, but we didn’t need help killing zombies anyway. We needed to find the Composer. Laura wasn’t having much luck with that, other than that obvious trap the changelings were looking into.

But what could I do to help?

Put myself in the Composer’s shoes, that’s what. Shouldn’t be that hard. Every show had a bad guy. I just had to put together what we knew and figure out which one he was.

Okay, we knew he wasn’t as dangerous as he could be. Even though we didn’t know everything about the singers, the Composer should be able to just hook one up to some big speakers and infect half the city. Why hadn’t he? There were only two possible explanations: Either he was playing a longer game, or he was an idiot.

I nearly dismissed the second one out of hand, but it was possible. We didn’t know where these powers had come from. Clarke’s blood and DNA tests still weren’t showing any results, and even brain scans didn’t show any abnormalities. We could apparently just do things, with no explanation. If the Composer was in a similar situation, it could be that some idiot had gotten a hold of a weird power, and in testing out its limits, had unintentionally lost important chances.

No…no, that didn’t work. Because for all his mistakes, the Composer had managed to stay hidden, had avoided fighting anyone directly. Laura had some theory about it being a disembodied mind, able to manifest in any screamer, but that didn’t make sense to me. He hadn’t paused to gloat even once. And if you’re ever gonna gloat, it’s when you can swap bodies at a whim.

So we had to assume he was smart. Smart enough so that everything was going according to plan. After all, every time a screamer outbreak started, hundreds of people were turned, and he was only getting more efficient. If he was only a little patient, he could turn the whole city. Was that the plan?

Yes. That had to be it. Revealing the singers hadn’t been necessary; it was just a little clue to keep us scrambling for information while the status quo remained unchanged, to make us think we were making progress. He didn’t need the magic bullet to win the game. If nothing changed, he’d win soon enough.

Which meant we had to raid the lair that the changelings had found, despite how obvious it was. It might be a trap, but it was our only clue.

No…

No, that was just it.

Of course it was a trap. And of course we had to investigate. The Composer knew that. So the trap waiting for us wouldn’t be a slap on the wrist. It would mean certain death for whoever went in there.

As the elevator door opened, I stepped outside, but didn’t go further. The cell reception was a little bit iffy in my room. We had asked Emily to fix our broken relay, but she apparently hadn’t done anything about it.

I pulled out my phone and called Laura. She was probably either studying downstairs or with Clarke, but either way she’d have enough free time to talk.

On the third ring, she picked up. “Hello?”

“Laura? It’s Ling.”

“Yeah, I got that. What’s up?”

“We need to bomb the Composer’s lair.”

There was a very long pause on the other end of the line. “Why would we do that.”

“Because it’s our only clue,” I insisted.

There was another, shorter pause. “Yes, that’s generally why you don’t incinerate evidence.”

“No, I mean it’s our only clue, and the Composer knows that. So the trap waiting for us is probably going to be enough to level a city block.”

“And what, you want to beat him to the punch?”

“Yes, exactly! If blow it up ourselves, some evidence might survive, and if we’re very lucky he’ll be inside at the time.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Ling, there are a number of problems with that plan. But I’m going to start with this one: We’re not going in. We’re just watching the place, to see who does go in.”

My brain screeched to a halt. “That’s, uh…”

“A better plan?”

“Well, it doesn’t involve enough explosions…”

“Funny. Look, just leave the planning to me and Derek, okay? We have everything under control.” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute. ‘Leave the planning to me and Derek.’ Those two had too many people looking to them for answers. Just because they were right most of the time didn’t mean they should get swelled heads.

Really, I was just annoyed because she shot down my argument so easily. I was used to being the stupidest person in the group, but usually I had at least something to contribute.

That friend of theirs…what was her name? Laura’s roommate? That’s right, Lizzy. She didn’t have this problem. Both times I had seen her, she just smiled and let Laura do her thinking for her. I was in a worse spot; smart enough to come up with plans, and dumb enough to think they could actually work.

I shook my head and started towards my room. I needed a break.

As I turned the corner, I saw a little girl, maybe ten years old, sitting in front of my door. She jumped up when she saw me.

“Ni Ling?” she asked.

“I don’t speak Chinese,” I explained. I was surprised she did; she was white. Didn’t ‘ni’ mean ‘two’ or something? ‘Two Ling?’ What could that possibly mean?

“Are you Ling?” the girl said, without missing a beat. When I nodded, she pulled a folded-up piece of paper out of her shirt. “Your friend Turgay, the ursa anthro, told me to give this to you.”

I reached out to take it, but stopped, frowning. “I don’t know an ursa named Turgay. I know an ave…”

She nodded and handed me the paper, then turned around and headed for the stairs without saying a word.

Still frowning, I opened up the paper slowly. The message was brief: ‘Abigail and Mechanus, ASAP.’ The intersection of Abigail and Mechanus, as soon as possible.

I sighed and headed for the elevators again. Why was he going through all this trouble? Couldn’t he just call me like a normal person?

It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the intersection in question, but I didn’t see him anywhere. Just late-night students and vampires, shopping around. There was a toy store nearby, as well as a few book shops and linens stores, all things that a college student would need. The ‘scrapers edging the square were a bit smaller than normal, maybe ten or fifteen stories. It created an interesting valley effect that you don’t often see in Domina.

But I had seen it all before. Although the lights from the buildings made them stand out beautifully in the night, that wasn’t what I was here for, and the fact that I couldn’t find what I was looking for was starting to annoy me.

He was one of like, a hundred ave anthros in the city. How could it be this hard to spot him?

I wandered around for a few minutes, at a loss as to what to do, when I passed one of the alleys between buildings and heard birdsong. Aves usually have their vocal cords enhanced to let them produce sounds like that easily; I took it as the signal it was and ducked into the deeper darkness.

As expected, there was Turgay, blinking at me with his wide eyes. He had what looked like a dirty blanket wrapped around his body, probably due to the cold. Behind him was an open crate with another ave anthro, sitting on something and clutching his side. The second ave looked like a crow or a raven, but it was hard to tell in the poor light.

“Ling,” Turgay whispered breathlessly. “I wasn’t sure you would come.”

I glared at him. “You could have just called. That’s what we have phones for, you know.”

He shook his head vehemently. “No, I threw our phones away. MC was monitoring them.”

She was what? I sighed. “What did you get into this time?”

“It would be easier if I just showed you,” he said carefully, moving aside so I could get to the object he was protecting.

I stepped up to the crate, and the black-feathered ave scooted to the side so I could see what he was sitting on. It was smeared with blood, but it was impossible to mistake that mirrored coffin for anything but what it was. Clarke had spammed all of us with pictures of it the second it had gone missing.

I cursed. “Turgay, why the hell do you have the toy box?”

He nodded in relief. “Good, I wasn’t sure you’d recognize it.”

I narrowed my eyes. “That work you did for Soaring Eagle…you stole the toy box?

“Yes,” he said, meeting my gaze levelly. “And now I need your help to get it to her. Before the ‘sarians kill me.”

I sighed deeply, placing my forehead against the cool metal of the most important device in the city.

Lizzy didn’t have to deal with this. No one ever asked her for help. Hell, her friends refused to even find out what her power was, they were so worried about her safety.

Must be nice.

Here I was, smart enough to come up with plans and dumb enough to think they were good, cornered and pressed for help. Couldn’t go to Laura, or Derek, or anyone else smarter than me. Couldn’t even call MC.

Must be nice, being Elizabeth Greene.

Behind the Scenes (scene 58)

“Ni Ling” means “Are you Ling.” It’s just that most of Ling’s “Chinese” is actually Japanese that she only half-remembers, and has confused for Chinese.

Anniversary Newspost 2012

Today marks the first year anniversary of Domina City. Fifty-two weeks ago, I decided to start publishing a story I had written for fun. I knew it wasn’t perfect, but that was always part of the point. I wanted to see what I could do as a real writer, with an actual audience.

Response has been small, but positive. Everyone has been patient with me while I work out how to use the software, which is also something I appreciate. I think I’ve grown a lot as a writer, so this exercise has already been a success.

I’ve got a few other projects in the works, but I’m not giving up on Domina quite yet. For one thing, I’ve got ninety-seven more chapters ready to be published, so I’m not going to just let those lie fallow on my hard drive. And of course, the story would make no sense if I just end it at scene 154, so I’m not going to stop there. We’re going to be here for a while longer.

That being said, I do have some important announcements. First, I’m going to be running a Kickstarter to have Domina published in hard copy. We’re still ironing out the details, but the current plan is to bundle 10-20 chapters together, along with a little bit of bonus material. Maps of the city, gun schematics, more detailed information on the cultures and the warlords, and short stories unconnected to the main plot.

That’s going to take a little while to set up, which is probably a good thing—we simply don’t have enough dedicated fans right now to successfully run a Kickstarter campaign. Keep an eye out in the next couple months. It will be a big announcement you can’t miss, I promise.

While that is going on, we do have a few other things in the works. There have been a few requests for a forum, so we’ll be looking into getting that set up, as well as finding a place to better display the culture logos I commissioned.

Other than that, all I can say is thank you to everyone who reads and enjoys Domina City. I hope you continue to do both.

Scene 57 – Inopinatum

INOPINATUM

The COMPOSER

I thrust my hand quickly into my captive’s chest, found her heart, and ripped it out with a squelching sound. Blood splashed everywhere as her ribs were bent violently back to allow my fist to exit, and I was showered in gristle and bone.

It made me feel better, but it didn’t solve my problem.

“What do you mean this was planned? No one told me!”

“It didn’t concern you,” the voice in my head admonished. No, not a split personality, I don’t have those. Just telepathy. “There was no need for you to know.”

“No need? You threw an escape pod at my city, of course there was need!”

“What would you have done differently? The USP cannot be allowed to reacquire Shaohao Station. If they do, they control the main supply line to the rest of the colonies vying for independence from Earth. They will be able to simply starve them into submission.”

“Who the hell cares about that?” I cried, ripping another organ from my technically-still-alive prisoner. I think it was the liver. “I wanted to see the corpses!”

“Of course,” the voice said in a dry tone. “And here I thought you were motivated by something silly, like common decency.”

“The crash killed a bunch of people in that building it hit,” I insisted. “Giants, too. They’re fun to watch die, cuz they never see it coming. They think they’re invincible.”

“I cannot express just how much I do not care.”

I smashed the captive’s skull in. I shouldn’t have done that. They’re always more fun when they’re still moving. “I’m doing my job, you’re doing yours. But when they intersect, I should know!”

Fine. Here’s how they intersect: Stay in Domina, don’t kill the astronaut.”

What?” I tossed the corpse away and grabbed another girl, a tall, thin thing with a gold eyes cosmo. “Why not? I thought you wanted to keep this under wraps.”

“No,” the voice said with exaggerated patience. “That’s what the USP wants. We want to spread awareness of this as far as possible. Sabotaging the pod to land in Domina was the perfect way to do that.”

I broke one of the girl’s hands. “Wait, you said something earlier about…something.”

“Wonderfully specific.”

“Shut it. No, that’s right…you said Domina needed to remain separate, independent. Isn’t this going to bring heat down on the city? The USP will be able to trace the leak back here.”

“My, are you actually concerned? I’m honestly impressed.”

“I don’t see why,” I muttered, as I shattered the girl’s other hand. She had already broken down, crying for her mother. Seriously. It was like she had never been tortured before. “If they send armies, I won’t be able to play around any more.”

“Ah. Yes, I should have expected that. That’s more like it.”

“You didn’t answer the question.”

“It’s simple. Butler is good at keeping America away from the city, and Mary Christina is good at preventing information leaks. Between the two of them, they’ll get the word out without actually implicating themselves.”

I grinned and started peeling the skin off the girl’s fingers with my nails. Blood welled up quickly, and she sobbed. “So I get to keep my playground?”

The voice sighed. “Yes, you get to keep your playground. But do remember that you have duties as well. You can’t just run around killing people.”

“I’m restraining myself,” I pointed out. “I’m only killing orphans.”

“About half the city consists of orphans,” the voice said drily. “Just…keep the body count below triple digits, all right?”

I paused in my torture. “Not including chorus and related casualties, right?”

The voice sighed again. “Correct.”

“Well,” I said slowly. “I think I can work with that.” I cut the link.

The gold-eyed girl was weeping, her lips silently mouthing the words ‘no no no’ over and over again.

I like the ones with weird eye colors. They’re like a spice sprinkled over a meal. Just a little bit, here and there, makes the entire experience so much more enjoyable.

I reached forward to tear the skin off her chest, but stopped, frowning, as something occurred to me.

Had they meant a triple-digit body count per day or total? Because one of those might be a problem.

Behind the Scenes (57)

So the Composer’s allies aren’t as crazy as he/she/it/they is/are. Of course, no one is as crazy as the Composer.

Extra update Wednesday.