Scene 94 – Homines et Monstra

HOMINES ET MONSTRA

SEENA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We just have to exploit its weaknesses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked thoughtful. “Like ice cold?”

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

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

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

Everyone stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And me, obviously,” Adam added.

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

“Me too,” Jelena volunteered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Eric.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking for something to stop those gargants outside.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 94)

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

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

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Scene 93 – Expertus

EXPERTUS

SIMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “You’re dating Laura?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

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

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

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

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

“Can’t say I know them.”

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

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

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

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

“Pacifism?”

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

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

Yolanda cocked her head questioningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a gargant.

A massive one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dae blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Run until you can contact MC. Quickly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kat?” I asked after a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron-lord gargants, however, could.

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

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

This was far more than a giant ape.

Its flesh was iron.

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

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

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

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

“Wait—Seena?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man wiggled his hand back and forth. Ish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing left to do but pray.

Behind the Scenes (scene 93)

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

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

Scene 92 – Sanguis

SANGUIS

ADAM

I watched as Laura very carefully drew a vial of blood out of her own arm, then placed it in a large mass spectrometer.

At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. The paper she had handed me said that’s what she was supposed to do now. But I didn’t know what one looked like. How was I supposed to know she wasn’t tricking me?

“Adam,” she admonished without turning around. “You’re not paying attention.”

“What? Yes I am.”

“Lie.”

I sighed. That power of hers only seemed to work when it was most annoying. “Sorry. I just can’t really tell what you’re doing.”

“Testing my blood for Malcanthet’s masking agent.”

I waved my hand. “Yes, I know. And the lab instructions are clear enough. But I mean…” I indicated the dial she was adjusting on the machine. “Like that, right there. I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“What does the paper say?” she asked with exaggerated patience.

I glanced at it. “’Adjust to nine percent power and auto-calibrate.”

She stepped aside so I could get to the machine. I walked up to get a closer look, and it did indeed see that the dial was at nine percent. Next to it was a small digital panel blinking ‘Auto-calibrate?’ with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ buttons below it.

“Happy now?” she asked, again with a sigh of strained patience.

“Very,” I replied. “Please continue.”

The pale girl nodded and stepped forward again.

She followed the rest of the instructions to the letter, as far as I could tell. The point of this exercise was to check if she was a sleeper, using me as an observer. Hopefully this would prove effective, but it would take time.

Laura’s current theory, that Malcanthet was the Composer, was not a pleasant one. I had heard enough stories about the Succubus Queen to know that things would only get worse from here on out.

The masking agents she used in her sleepers were apparently extremely complex. Chemicals masking chemicals masking chemicals. If you weren’t testing for it specifically, it was pretty much impossible to detect. Worse, it wouldn’t be too hard for her to just add another masking agent on top, which would make this entire exercise futile.

Laura assured me that was unlikely, mostly because the number of masking agents Malcanthet could use was dwindling. That didn’t really make me feel much better, since the number was still in the double digits, and we simply didn’t have the ability to check them all, but it seemed to calm her.

“You almost done down there?” a woman’s pleasant voice called down from upstairs. “I almost have dinner ready.”

“Just a few more minutes, Mrs Arrow,” Laura called back.

“Well, don’t take too long. The butter-crusts will get cold.” I heard the sound of the basement door closing.

I frowned. “Butter….crusts?”

“Shellfish cooked inside their shells with butter and spices,” Laura explained as she tapped a couple more buttons. “Veronica generally uses crabs.”

“Right. What else is there for you to do?”

“It needs about an hour to run, but we don’t need to be here for that. Just…” she tapped another key, which I’m pretty sure was the one the paper said. “Done.” She smiled. “C’mon. We can deal with the rest later.”

We walked upstairs into Obould’s house. It was really just a big apartment; ‘house’ might have been stretching it a little. But it certainly felt like one. It had that warm feeling of home, especially with the orc’s kids running around our feet. The two older ones, a pair of fourteen-year old twins, boy and girl, were a demon and a vampire, respectively, but everyone else was baseline. Mrs Arrow pulled a steaming metal sheet out of the oven, which did indeed seem to be carrying crabs, cut in half lengthwise and turned into bowls.

“Eat, eat,” she insisted. “The least I can do.”

Veronica looked a lot like a smaller version of Derek’s mother, although her skin was lighter. Apparently the two had grown up together, which probably meant she was Italian as well, but you couldn’t tell from her accent—or lack of one.

“Where’s your husband?” I asked as we sat down at the giant table. It was big enough to fit about forty people, but there were only seven right now. As I understood it, Obould was something like the landlord of the building, so he invited everyone over for holidays. It was a small skyscraper with big apartments; otherwise they would never fit.

“He’s off collecting specimens again,” the woman said with a roll of her eyes. “I probably should have told him you were using his lab, but it’s his loss.”

I frowned a little as I picked up one of the butter-crusts. It smelled good, at least. “Will he mind? We didn’t mean to be a nuisance—”

She laughed. “No, not at all. I meant he has to miss dinner, and you two.”

I had some difficulty with the chopsticks, but no one else seemed to notice, so I didn’t mention it, and ate my meal in silence. Mrs Arrow spent most of the time arguing with her children as they tried to talk their way out of chores. It was a nice background noise.

I eventually managed to finish my food. By that time, everyone else was already done, and chatting even more than before. After a minute, Laura glanced over.

“Done? Good. The tests should be done by now.” She stood up and carried her empty shell and chopsticks over to the sink.

Mrs Arrow scrambled up. “Oh, let me handle that, dear. You go finish your experiments.”

The sharp Spanish girl nodded gratefully, then headed back to the basement. I followed only a few steps behind.

“It’s done,” she said as she glanced at the machine. “Here, look for yourself.”

I grabbed the lab sheet again, and checked it against the readout. As far as I could tell, it looked like she was clean.

“I guess that’s the most we can hope for. What’s next?”

She pulled out the needles again. “I do the same to you. And while I’m doing that, you go get a sample from everyone else.”

I sat down and extended my arm, frowning. “Okay, who’s everyone?”

She tied some surgical tubing off on my arm. “Everyone close to us. Derek, Ling, Akane, Lizzy…” she paused. “Maria and my father, the retinue…everyone. I already did Doctor Clarke, but I couldn’t find Robyn. Oh, and I guess I should send you after Seena and Simon too…”

I bit my lip as she started drawing blood. “What…about Lily? She shouldn’t be a danger…right?”

“Yes and no,” Laura said slowly, probably realizing it was a sore subject. “On the one hand, she knows than to get into situations where she could get drugged, hypnotized, the whole process. On the other hand, Malcanthet is probably still very angry at her, specifically, for the Battle of Shendilavri.”

I winced, and not because of the needle. “I know, I know, but…”

“However, I already got her blood,” she explained. “I tested it at Clarke’s machines, and it came up clean, but I still have enough to do it again here.” She smiled as gently as she could, which wasn’t saying much. “You don’t have to worry about her.”

I sighed in something close to relief. She wasn’t quite clear yet, but close enough. “Okay. Okay, good. How should I get the samples? I’m guessing just asking is out.”

“Of course. Even the two of us knowing is still a risk. If she finds out our plans, things will start to go south.”

I snorted. That was an understatement.

“Start with the other Paladins,” she advised. “I doubt they’d be stupid enough, especially Akane and Derek, but we have to be sure. I can get my parents.”

I accepted the band-aid she offered and patched myself up. “Fair enough. I’ll be back in a few hours.” I grabbed the small box of syringes, already in a convenient carrying case.

“Don’t forget to label the samples,” she reminded me. “The last thing we need is to identify the wrong person as a sleeper.”

I nodded, and left.

Mrs. Arrow tried to get me to take some food with me, but I assured her I’d be back soon enough, which seemed to placate her. The second I got outside, I flipped open my phone.

“MC,” I said. “I need to know where the closest Paladins are.”

Her fake voice replied instantly. “That would be Miss Yu, about a mile north.”

“Thank you.” I hung up and started walking.

I could have caught a bus or a train, but I wasn’t in a hurry. Quite the opposite, actually. I kept expecting to get a call from Laura telling me that I was a sleeper, and they needed to lock me up so I didn’t hurt anyone.

We still weren’t completely certain, but the evidence was definitely pointing towards Malcanthet. Lily wasn’t going to be happy. I knew she wanted to put the Succubus Queen completely out of her mind. Finding out she was behind the recent attacks would not be good for her.

But what else could I do? Not tell her? Ridiculous. I had to. Sure, we had only been going out for about a month, but ‘By the way, your arch-nemesis is loose in the city again’ isn’t something you keep from people you care about.

I’d decide how to explain all that later. Right now I had to figure out how to get a syringe of blood out of a girl who could throw boulders at me, without her noticing.

The first thing that sprang to mind was knocking her out, but that was a bad idea. Short of giving her a concussion, the only way to neutralize her would be to drug her, which would probably screw with the test results.

Well…did Laura need an entire syringe? No, just a little bit. All I needed was a small sample.

The beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind.

“Adam?”

I looked up. I had walked for longer than I thought. Ling and Lizzy were standing in front of me, weighed down with shopping bags.

“MC called,” the little Chinese girl said. “Something about you wanting to see us?”

Ah. So we had met halfway. “Yeah, Laura said you guys were out shopping, and I was wondering if you got anything for Lily.”

Lizzy grinned. “Liar. You just want to know if we got anything for you.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I glanced around the sidewalk. It was about twilight, so there weren’t many people around, but still too many. “C’mon. Let’s find a cafe.”

“There’s one on the fifth floor,” Ling promised, ducking into the nearest building, with Lizzy close behind.

The first four floors were restaurants too, fast-food places. Normally in a configuration like this, the bottom floor would be the main area, with all the others bringing their food down when ordered. But for some reason—maybe because there wasn’t enough space out front, or maybe just poor planning—that wasn’t the case here. We had to take a thin staircase to the side up to the fifth floor.

We sat down at a table near the window, and the girls ordered some hot chocolate from the squirrel-kemo waitress. I didn’t get anything, mostly because I still had to figure out how to get the samples. It was going to be tricky, but I was pretty sure I could pull it off.

“You not thirsty?” Ling asked innocently, and I was pulled back to the matter at hand.

I shook my head to try and clear it. I had time to think later. “No, not really. Anyway, what’d you buy?”

“A dress,” Lizzy replied cheerfully, pulling out the item in question. It was a red, slinky thing, but I don’t really know enough about clothing to be sure if it would look good on her. “Luckily, I already had Lily’s size.”

I had a swarmbuster grenade, which shoots out plastic shards. It wouldn’t kill a human, but it would definitely make them bleed. Unfortunately, Ling could sense all solids. She’d notice that I was the one who used it, even if I just pulled the pin and dropped it under the table. Wait, didn’t she have to concentrate to do that? Not sure, but I couldn’t risk it.

“So…why did you buy it for her, again?” I knew why; Lizzy apparently just buys things, and eventually gifts them to people. But I needed to get her talking so I could have a minute to think.

While she went on about stimulating the economy and getting presents for her friends and so on, I scanned the room as subtly as I could. The cafe was pretty busy, mostly with vampires just getting up for the evening. No one looked at us sideways, though, since a lot of the customers were diurnals meeting up with their nocturnal friends.

The waitress carried drinks around precariously on a tray. Including…a large glass pitcher of water.

That was an answer. Not a perfect one, but I wasn’t exactly in a perfect situations here.

Ling turned to me. “What do you think?”

I hadn’t heard a word of their conversation, of course, but I know an opportunity when I see one. “I think I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back.”

“It’s next to the counter,” Lizzy advised. “Ask the barrister.”

Perfect.

I did as she suggested, timing my slow press through the table-crowded room to reach the door to the back (and presumably the bathrooms) at about the same time as the squirrel-waitress.

“Come here real quick,” I muttered. “I need a favor.”

She raised an eyebrow, and her bushy tail twitched. That was the only toy she had, as far as I could tell. “No. This is a respectable establishment.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not that, I promise. I just need to ask you something out of sight of my friends.”

She sighed and followed me around the corner.

“I just need you to break one of those pitchers near my friends,” I explained, the second they couldn’t see us.

The eyebrow arched again. “Why would I possibly do that?”

“Call MC. She’ll explain.”

The squirrel looked at me funny for a moment, but sighed, and pulled out her phone. “Hello, I’d like to speak to the real MC.”

“Tell her it’s regarding Laura’s tests,” I urged.

She glared at me. “It’s regarding Laura’s tests.”

She continued glaring at me for about ten seconds, until suddenly her expression transformed into one of surprise. “MC? Well—yes.” She looked me up and down. “Yes. He wants me to—well, all right then.” She closed the phone with a snap, a bewildered expression on her face.

“You’ll help,” I said, trying not to sound too smug.

“I’ll help,” she confirmed, still too shocked to say much else. “I’ll…be over in a few minutes.”

I returned to the table, feeling pretty good about myself.

“Did that waitress follow you into the bathroom?”

I blinked at Lizzy. She had noticed that?

“Ah, no. She went to the women’s.”

The bronze-skinned girl rolled her eyes. “Well, obviously. That’s what I meant.”

Thankfully, before she could say anything else, the squirrel kemo walked by, an empty glass pitcher balanced on a tray she was holding with one hand.

“Your drinks will be out in a minute,” she promised. “Was there anything else you needed?”

Both girls shook their heads, and I answered for them. “No, we’re good.”

She smiled. “Holler if you change your minds.” She turned to go, and I almost thought she had decided not to help.

Instead, her tail knocked into Lizzy.

Even though I knew it was faked, I could barely tell. Her squirrel tail wasn’t anywhere near as flexible as Lily’s demon one (though whether that was limitation of the technology or the girl’s finances, I wasn’t sure), and it was very bushy. It had probably taken her lots of practice to not bump into things; I imagine it wasn’t that difficult to do the opposite.

Lizzy cursed in a language I didn’t understand, flailing about and unintentionally completing the illusion. With a yelp, the waitress lost control of her tray. The pitcher slid off and shattered on the tabletop, shards flying everywhere.

I didn’t know if the girls were injured or not, but it didn’t matter. I grabbed a small hand towel in each hand, both covering a small pocketknife. Under the pretense of leaping up to help, I slashed both Ling and Lizzy near the upper shoulder, hopefully making it look like they had just been cut by flying glass.

“I am so so so sorry,” the waitress cried. “Let me—oh fur and fangs, you’re bleeding!”

She was good. The girl had a future in acting, if she cared.

“Let me get that,” I said, holding the knives with only two fingers each, and using the rest to hold the towels and mop at the wounds I made. I just needed to make sure not to mix them up.

“The one time I’m not wearing armor…” Ling muttered. “Lizzy, you okay?”

The amazon swallowed, and nodded. “I…think so. Can we just leave? Right now?”

“This is all my fault,” the waitress apologized frantically. “If there’s anything I can do—”

“Let us leave,” Lizzy replied instantly. “Right now.”

The manager had run over by this point. “Of course, of course. Next time you’re here, you will of course get free drinks—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ling brushed him off. “C’mon.”

We left quickly, only stopping once we were on the empty street outside.

“What are you doing?” I asked, noticing the girls had dumped out everything in their bags on the ground and were slowly putting it back in.

“Checking for broken glass,” Ling said bluntly. “I have half a mind to get that waitress fired.”

I really hoped it didn’t come to that. “She made a mistake. Happens to everyone.”

“Yeah, whatever,” she muttered. Having decided her purchases were as close to glass-free as she could get them, she picked up her bags and headed north.

“Where are you going?”

She turned to me, eyebrow raised. “Back to the dorms. You?”

I scrambled for an excuse. “Ah…no, I think I’m going to take a walk.” I jerked my thumb south, towards Obould’s place. “This way. I’ll see you both later. Be sure to get those wounds looked at.”

“We will,” Lizzy promised. “Good night.”

It took me about twenty minutes to get back to Laura, despite the fact that it was only two blocks away. I had to take a few small detours, mostly to avoid hungry-looking ghouls in dark alleys. I was armed, and confident in my abilities, but not that confident, and I didn’t want to risk contaminating my samples. I kept them in separate pockets the whole way, to make sure I didn’t get them mixed up.

“That was quick,” Mrs. Arrow commented when I walked through the open door. “You find what you were looking for?”

“Ah…yes. Is Laura…”

“Downstairs,” she assured me. I thanked her and headed to the basement.

The sharp-faced woman looked up as I came down the stairs. “I thought that was you. Good timing. Your results just came in. Looks like you’re clean. You get Ling’s sample?”

“And Lizzy’s. But…I had to use towels to do it. There was no way I would have been able to do it with the syringes.”

She cursed lightly under her breath. “Hardly ideal…you at least made sure they were clean, I trust?”

I nodded.

“Good,” she said, nodding in turn. “Then we should be able to get a good reading regardless.”

I pulled out the towels, in the small plastic baggies I had put them in, and carefully set them on the table. They weren’t ziplock bags; I wouldn’t have been able to get them closed without the girls noticing anyway.

“Left is Lizzy,” I explained. “Right is Ling.”

She examined them closely. “How, exactly, did you get the samples?”

I shrugged. “Recruited a waitress to break some glass near them, then cut them while they were distracted and daubed up the blood.”

She held up both samples carefully. The towels was pure white, without a drop of red.

“You missed,” she said flatly.

I cursed under my breath. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 92)

Squirrel kemos are known as “daes.” The waitress (her name is Grace) is actually a chipmunk kemo, or daemarm, but no one really cares.

Scene 78 – Auxilius Necessarium

AUXILIUS NECESSARIUM

LAURA

I slathered some more healing paste on the hamburger that used to be Derek’s chest. I was surprised they had even managed to get him back to lab in that state. Ah, there was some premature healing, probably from a stimpack or two. That explained it. Still, I frowned at their story. “She shot three gargants?”

Derek nodded, though it clearly pained him. “With darts loaded with that calciophage stuff you and Clarke cooked up, yes.”

I rolled my eyes. “That stupid…I didn’t have anything to do with that. It’s a horrible invention. Too dangerous to use effectively. Akane, hand me that gauze, would you? Thanks.”

“It seemed to work against the gargants,” Adam pointed out.

I snorted. “And if you had been dealing with iron-heart gargants, they wouldn’t have even noticed. But that’s not what I mean. It gets into the air, then into your lungs, and kills everyone in the area.”

Adam blanched and covered his mouth. Akane giggled, and even Derek managed to crack a smile.

“Ah…but you don’t have to worry,” I assured him. “You’d be dead by now if you had gotten any in you.”

He lowered his hand sheepishly. “Of…course.” He looked around, desperately seeking to change the subject. “Where’s that red girl? Robyn, right?”

“She left a while ago,” I explained, as I added a few more bandages to Derek. “Said she felt useless.” I heard the click of heels. “Speaking of useless…”

Lizzy walked into the room.

She was wearing black. Lots of black. Black heels with straps that went up to her thigh, black shorts that reached down to the straps, and a marvelous black corset, with a dark shawl wrapped around it all.

I practically had to use my full weight to keep Derek on the table. I don’t know what the idiot was planning to do—hug her, probably—but he was hardly in any shape to do it.

“Hello,” I greeted her neutrally. “Didn’t you say you were bringing Ling with you?”

Lizzy cocked her head in confusion (and I felt Derek’s heart rate speed up), before nodding. “Ah, right. Yes, but she wanted to spend time with her ave friend. Make sure he’s doing all right, I suppose.”

“Fair enough,” I said slowly, searching for the proper words. An awkward silence fell as my hands worked.

After a very long few minutes, I finished bandaging Derek, and I had no good reason to remain silent. I made sure to fix her with a steely gaze first, though. I may not be as intimidating as Derek, but it’s not something you want to be on the receiving end of. “Did you rescue these three morons from gargants earlier?”

She blinked, her jaw working silently for a moment before speaking. “You…know about that?”

I frowned. “Where’d you get the calciophage, Lizzy?”

She shrugged a little helplessly. “Well, you know…Clarke is not always good at keeping track of things…”

I sighed. That idiot. He had to be doing it on purpose. No one could be that stupid. “Of course. But that stuff is dangerous. Don’t use it again.”

This could mean serious trouble, and not just because of the calciophage. Lizzy was not a killer, not a fighter, and not even an athlete. If she tried to get in the middle of this mess with the Composer, she would be destroyed, in more ways than one. We needed to make sure nothing came of this. I made a mental note to speak to the others about it once Lizzy left the room.

Before the uncomfortable silence could fall again, Adam spoke. “Well, I for one am thankful for the rescue.”

“Yeah,” Akane agreed. “Dōmo arigatōgozaimashita.”

Derek couldn’t say much (I had bandaged him a little too tight), but grunted in agreement.

Lizzy just smiled with those perfect teeth of hers, her golden eyes glittering. “This…is too much. You have nothing to thank me for.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 78)

Shooort. But this wasn’t really all that important, just shows Derek healing, and explains why Lizzy isn’t suddenly going to join the Paladins.

Oops, spoiler.

Extra update Wednesday.

Scene 76 – Servator

SERVATOR

KELLY

I put the binoculars down and pulled my daygoggles back on. “Did anyone else see that?”

Jarasax lowered his own binoculars. “Damn right I did. Flying screamers? That’s not gonna be fun.”

George leaned forward. “Flying what? What’s going on?”

“Something just flew away from the square where the Paladins were hunting those gargants,” I explained quickly. “Sax, get us as close as you can. George, Alex, get ready.”

Our changeling driver moved quickly, starting up the engine and parking next to the mouth of the alley, the door of the van facing the opening. George wasted no time in sliding open the door and jumping out, pistol at the ready. We didn’t have time for him to lug around the minigun, not when the Paladins might be hurt, but a TK002 ‘Titan’s Knife’ would more than suffice.

Both the ogre and the angel dodged out of sight around the corner in seconds, but Jarasax and I didn’t follow. Instead, we both silently started loading up our guns; me with my Necessarian Saint Euphemia 4.5 mm rifle, and him with his Hellion 93-090 Auto. The latter was a 5.5 mm machine gun. Maybe a bit overkill against normal monsters, but he’d have to get lucky to use it successfully against gargants.

Not that it mattered. By the time we were ready to go, they were already running back with Akane and Adam in tow, and Derek in George’s arms.

“I can walk, man. Seriously, just put me down.”

“Maybe you can walk, but you shouldn’t,” the giant advised. “If not for yourself, then do it for us. Medina would kill us all if you got hurt.”

The injured monster slayer frowned. “What are you talking about? She wouldn’t care.”

George rolled his eyes as he set him down carefully in the back of the van. “He always this stupid?”

“Always,” Akane confirmed, jumping in and sitting at his side. “Remind me to tell you about the time he found a naked girl in his bed and thought she was screwing with him.”

Alex chuckled. “Oh, I’m sure there was very little screwing involved.”

Derek chose to ignore the back and forth, which was probably for the best. “What are you guys doing here, anyway? I thought you were busy.”

“We were,” I lied, glad Laura wasn’t around. “We finished early and decided to come check up on you. Which reminds me—have you called in the screamer yet?”

Adam frowned as he clambered into the van behind George and Alex. “Screamer?”

Derek coughed, spitting up a little bit of blood in the process. “That wasn’t a screamer. It was another Paladin.” He waved his hand weakly. “Not a Paladin, of course…”

“A speaker,” Jarasax put in. “That’s the general term for people like you.”

“Right, sure…” he coughed again, and blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth.

Akane didn’t say a word. She just placed her hand on his chest and glared at him. He got the message and stopped trying to talk.

Adam took up the slack. “We’re pretty sure we know who it is. We just need to confirm it.”

I looked into those dull eyes of his, and knew he was telling the truth. Some sociopaths have the ability to lie perfectly, as part of their inherent…inhumanity. Adam wasn’t one of those. I could see through him like he was made of glass. He had simply never learned guile.

“Good. Sax, let’s go.” The changeling nodded and we sped off as Alex slid closed the door. “You don’t need to tell me who this flier is. But I need to know if you suspect they’re a threat.”

Akane snorted in derision. Adam glared at her briefly, but answered quickly anyway. “Hardly. She’s no more of a threat than Lily. I doubt she’d be very helpful either, but still.”

“That’s all we need,” I assured him. “I understand if you want to keep secrets. As long as it doesn’t interfere with anything else, I don’t really care. Take a right here, it’s faster.”

Jarasax followed my suggestion with a frown. “I thought we were taking them to their dorm?”

“The lab is closer. Besides, it has better equipment.”

He nodded. “Not to mention it’s on the way to our next errand.”

I almost asked him what he meant until I realized it was a bluff for the benefit of our charges. We both knew we needed to keep direct contact to a minimum. This way, we could drop them at the lab, peel off, and park a good distance away.

We weren’t hiding from the Paladins, not really. It was just the fewer people who knew that we were always just around the corner, the better. Maybe the Composer would think he could easily assassinate them or something, and we’d be able to catch him.

“Wait, errand?” George asked. “I don’t remember anything about that.”

I sighed. Moron. Well, he was a good fighter and made a mean chupaqueso, so I guess we could forgive a few mistakes here and there.

“We have to report to Butler for an assignment. I’ll brief you later.”

“Just get us there,” Adam said calmly. I turned to see him staring at me with those same dispassionate eyes as before. “After that, whatever happens is your business.”

Ah. Perhaps he had some understanding of guile after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 76)

Yow, short. This wasn’t a very important scene, but I still wanted it anyway.

Extra update Wednesday.  Think of it as a Christmas present.

Scene 75 – Ossis

OSSIS

ADAM

Derek and Akane were waiting for me when I got out of class. They both looked somber, which was surprising. All things considered, I had always found it interesting how well they handled their responsibilities.

“Who died?” I asked jokingly, and immediately regretted it. In this city, that was a very real possibility.

But Derek smiled a little. “Nobody. It’s just…” he hesitated. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”

Wonderful. Now they were keeping secrets.

Well, I wasn’t really concerned. They’d tell me or they wouldn’t, and nothing I said would change their minds.

“You ready to go?” I asked. I already had my guns with me, so I didn’t need anything else.

He nodded. “Yeah, we are. And the gargant is just a block south of school, so we can walk.”

We started in the direction he indicated. “Is anyone else coming?”

He shook his head. “The retinue is a little busy, and I don’t really want to deal with Ling right now. Besides, it’s a brick-plated gargant. They’re tough, but slow and not very dangerous.”

I adjusted my backpack over my shoulder. “I thought you said all gargants were dangerous.”

“Not very dangerous for a gargant,” he amended. “Keep your guard up and we’ll be fine.”

I shrugged. Seemed simple enough.

We caught the creature’s trail pretty quickly. Derek was right; it wasn’t really doing very much damage. A lot of smashed shop windows, a few pummeled cars, but no bodies. People knew to stay out of the way, and that was enough to keep them safe. Of course, property damage isn’t cheap, which is why somebody had hired Derek for this job in the first place.

This was giant territory, if I remembered right, but it was only barely within their domain. We could probably get help if we called, but Derek didn’t think we needed it. Besides, we’d lose most of the bounty that way. There wasn’t anyone around, anyway, and it would be too much of a hassle to find someone who hadn’t run for their lives. No, we had to do this ourselves, and that was that.

We followed the trail through a couple a alleys that reminded me uncomfortably of the crawler gargants (without the slime, thankfully), eventually coming out in a small square with a fountain and four small trees at the corners. Although the place looked nice, it had probably been abandoned even before monsters moved in. The surrounding buildings were too tall and blocked most of the sunlight, while at the same time letting enough in that vampires would find it uncomfortable.

The gargants, however, seemed to love the place. They were happily slurping up water from the fountain, and a couple of the trees were missing branches, presumably where the monsters had taken a nibble.

And it was monsters, plural. Only three, sure, but that’s still two more than we were expecting, and with gargants that’s something to be worried about. I was beginning to wonder if the stupid mission briefing was ever right.

Brick-plated gargants, as the name implied, were covered in chunks of brick and stone, which made them look like mobile, poorly constructed buildings. They secreted some weird chemical from their skin that acted as glue, but only for porous, brick-like materials.

Unlike the steel-plated gargant of last week, these were a more sane size, more like very large dogs or wolves than the monstrosities I had been expecting. They were broader than dogs, but other than that the comparison was an apt one. They even panted, their mouths open and their tongues rolling slobber over the bricks of their heads. Speaking of which, I didn’t see any eye holes. Did they operate solely by sound, or something else?

Still, even with their stout forms and blindness, these things were almost taller than me and about half that wide, so they could be dangerous if by nothing other than pure luck. We’d need to be careful. I started loading up the armor-piercing slugs Turgay had sold me for my Saint George as quietly as I could.

Derek glanced at me sideways. “Those that god slayer I’ve been hearing so much about?”

“No, just teflon,” I assured him. “Wasn’t there only supposed to be one gargant?”

Akane answered with a shrug. “Poster only saw one. It happens.”

“We’ll get paid appropriately,” Derek promised.

I raised an eyebrow. “With or without threatening our employer?”

He smiled a little. “Without, hopefully.”

I shrugged. “More’s the pity.” I finished loading my shotgun with a mechanical click. “You two ready? We can go grab some giants if we need help.”

“This is Thor territory,” Derek muttered, a frustrated look on his face. “They don’t really feel like playing nice right now.”

None of the cultures were feeling particularly sociable after the debacle at Bombed Alley, but the hellions and Aesir were definitely the worst. If the rumors on the internet were anything to go by—and Laura assured me they were—all the gangs were falling back to their homes and fortifying their defenses. Hopefully that would be useful against screamers, but that’s not the reason they were doing it.

They smelled a war coming.

Back to the gargants. They hadn’t noticed us yet, or didn’t care. Derek indicated I should head left, while Akane took the right flank and he came right up the middle.

The beasts grunted, sniffing the air, and we all froze. They edged in our direction a little, perhaps noticing the change in the wind, but soon returned to the fountain and continued drinking.

I glanced at Derek. What should we do? But he was frowning, indecisive. From what I had seen of his fighting style, I knew he normally waited for the opponent to strike, and then took advantage of any openings in their defense. He didn’t like attacking first.

If the gargants knew we were there, they definitely didn’t care. Because they stopped drinking and started mating.

I’m being unnecessarily crude. It was actually pathetic to watch. These things were never designed to mate with each other. Their sex organs (if they even still had them) weren’t anywhere they could use them; they were buried underneath the bricks.

Not that it would have mattered if they had been able to manage it. Laura had explained that each gargant was unique, handcrafted by the fey. There were set patterns, of course, but each beast was different. Some of those changes were genetic, but not many. Even if one gargant managed to get another pregnant, at best the resulting baby would just be a mildly altered animal.

Still, it didn’t really seem like a good idea to intrude. Animals get angry when interrupted, and we’d have enough trouble even if they were relatively docile.

Derek seemed to feel otherwise. “Silver and gold, we don’t have time for this. Akane.”

She nodded and blurred forward. The gargant she was aiming at turned curiously, ignoring its mate, but wasn’t able to stop her as she bounded atop its head and plunged her sword into the brick at the top of its skull.

The beast howled in pain (confirming my suspicions that they were originally some kind of dog) and thrashed, trying to shake the swordswoman loose. But Akane’s blade appeared to be stuck, and she wasn’t in any mood to let go.

The other two monsters would make that decision for her soon enough. Alerted by their companion’s violent motions, they broke off their futile attempts to mate and barreled forward.

Derek had been waiting for this. Before they could get close enough to Akane to be dangerous, he ran straight up to the leading gargant, grabbed its lolling tongue, and ripped it to the side.

I half expected the thing to get completely torn out, but Derek isn’t that strong. Besides, that wasn’t his goal. The tongue is a vulnerable muscle, and if something grabs it, you pretty much have to go where they want.

So Derek was able to crash both brick-plated gargants into each other very easily.

They collided with a sound like…well, like a bag of bricks tumbling to the ground. They howled in pain, wrestling with each other, and we were able to turn our attentions back to Akane’s beast.

It tried to slam her into the ground, but couldn’t turn its head enough to manage it. She did finally get her sword free, though, and backflipped off as if it was the easiest thing in the world.

That stupid power package. Made them look ridiculously perfect.

Whatever. We needed to be quick, before it recovered. I already had my shotgun ready, so I took careful aim at it’s brick-plated skull and fired.

The tungsten slugs didn’t have the same ridiculous power as the god slayer, but they were hardly something to sneeze at. In fact, the real issue with them was overpenetration. On most targets, they’d just go straight through without dealing major damage.

A gargant is not like most targets. It is a massive lump of flesh and bone, with little chance of the bullet overpenetrating. As long as it’s a direct hit and breaches the armor, any weapon will mess up the insides quite a bit. The first problem is breaching the armor, but I had that covered.

The second problem was that it was a massive lump of flesh and bone. No matter what I hit it with, it was going to take more than one shot to take it down.

The beast screamed in pain as my slug buried itself right between its eyes. It was badly injured, no question, and I might have even hit the brain, but it was still very dangerous. It shook itself, bellowed its rage, and charged forward, its maw open to take as big a bite out of me as it could.

I dodged to the left at the last second and the gargant slammed into the skyscraper behind me, sending up a massive cloud of vaporized sheetrock. The creature moaned in pain, and I nearly felt sorry for it.

“Derek!” I heard Akane call.

I turned back just in time to see one of the other two beasts slam into Derek full force, grinding him down into the concrete of the small square. I was surprised he hadn’t used his powers, until I saw the reason: The other gargant was harassing Akane, and he was projecting a glowing blue barrier around her, rather than himself. Heroic to the end.

As the beast bellowed again and ground its bricks against my friend, I assumed the shield would flicker and die. It didn’t. It stayed strong, as though this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Not having a power myself, I wasn’t really sure how hard that actually was, but it certainly looked impressive.

No time for lollygagging. I had to save Derek.

I raised my shotgun again, but I heard a sound behind me as my gargant shook itself out of the building it had crashed into. I wheeled around and fired, but I only hit its flank. It didn’t charge, just eyed me warily, but it would if I let my guard down.

I backed up until I was close enough that I could see Derek while keeping one eye on my foe. He was actually doing surprisingly well, considering most of his blood was on the concrete instead of inside him. The gargant was trying to bite him, but he had its jaws clamped tightly shut, as if in a vise. Jaws are harder to open than to close, but it was still impressive. Not to mention he still had his barrier going. Why wasn’t Akane doing anything?

When I glanced over at her, I noticed her blur out from behind the shield for a moment, strike at the gargant’s leg, and then blur back before it could retaliate.

Well, at least she wasn’t just sitting there, but we still had a serious problem on our hands. I was beginning to wish I had brought a couple god slayers after all.

Right when I decided to risk taking a couple shots at the beast pinning Derek to the ground, the gargant watching me began to…crumple.

It was a horrifying sight really, as the beast folded inward like a wet paper bag. I couldn’t hear the sounds of popping bones and tearing muscles over the bricks clattering together, but I could imagine them well enough.

Akane noticed what was going on and got as far away from the gargants as she could, blurring back to the alley we had come from, about ten feet from me. Derek, seeing this, dropped the shield that had been protecting her and remade it around himself.

Just in time, too, as the creature that had been harassing him began crumpling just like mine. Only it was closer this time, and I could hear the sound of bones turning to mush, like the sound of boots squishing through a swamp. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the same thing happening to the third beast.

It only took a few minutes, but they moaned dejectedly the entire time. Eventually, the weight of their bodies—not to mention the bricks—crushed the brick-plated gargants to death.

Eventually.

It was a terrible way to die.

I waited until I was absolutely sure they were dead before swallowing and speaking. “What…was that?”

Derek stepped forward and gingerly nudged the corpse with his toe, peeling back a few bricks with his shoe. “I think that was a calciophage.”

I frowned. “Calcium eater?”

He nodded. “A new poison Clarke’s been cooking up. See there?” He pointed to a patch of goo that had once been the creature’s flank. A small feathered dart was poking out of it. “Someone shot them with a calciophage, and it ate their skeletons.”

I shivered a little, imagining what that would feel like. “Who would do that?”

“Save us or use something like that?” Derek asked with a smile.

I grinned back at his small joke. “Mostly, who would know we were here.”

He frowned. “I’m not sure. And I’m not sure we can get the bounty now, either. I need to find whoever—”

“Derek,” Akane said in a firm tone.

We turned to see that she wasn’t looking at us, but at one of the nearby rooftops. We followed her gaze and saw…a silhouette, standing on the edge.

It was impossible to tell exactly who it was, but it was clearly a woman, with long hair that flowed in the wind and caught the light majestically. The woman nodded once, then stepped off the ledge and…

Flew away.

She didn’t sprout wings, or reveal ones she already had. She didn’t use a jetpack or a wingpack or another of a dozen devices I could think of that might be able to pull that off.

She just flew, apparently completely under her own power, into the sun and out of sight.

A power user. One clearly still in control of her faculties. There was only one girl like that I knew of. I turned to Derek. Judging from the shocked look on his face, he had come to the same conclusion, but the next word out of his mouth confirmed it.

“Lizzy?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 75)

I tried to write out more detail for the gargants’ mating ritual, but I just couldn’t do it. That’s probably for the best.

Scene 69 – Post

POST

ADAM

It was a bloodbath, nothing less. Less than ten percent of our forces had survived the bombing run intact, barely enough to contain the disoriented (but mostly alive) screamers. Laura was organizing the recovery as best she could, and actually doing a fairly good job of it. Especially considering she had to coordinate the ‘sarian medical team at the same time.

Ling was still MIA, but Derek and Akane were sorting through the rubble, directing the medics to survivors they could save. A lot of the ones they brought in were horrifically injured, but that didn’t mean they were quite beyond help. The toy maker really was a miracle.

My job was simple enough. I was stationed at the perimeter of the med station with the retinue, in charge of shooting anything that tried to get close without authorizing. Not just screamers, either. The mind-controlled sleeper agents were proving dangerous, though luckily they didn’t seem to retain very much intellect in that state. It was a pretty simple job, which was good, since I was technically still recovering from that steel-plated gargant.

“Stay sharp, Anders,” Kelly instructed halfheartedly. She scratched the device on her left arm. “Not time for dozing off.”

I shot one of the skins that started running towards us, and he fell like a sack of potatoes. That was one good thing about these ones: We didn’t have to aim for the knees to have any chance of capturing them alive, since they could survive most of what we could throw at them anyway. A team clad in hazmat suits ran over to capture him.

“The fight is over, vampire,” I grumbled. We were all still sore and covered in dirt from Laura’s little carpet bombing, so tensions were high. Not to mention that rumors of the sleepers were sapping morale. Nobody wanted to wake up from a trance to find that they had started a war.

The sleeper agents who had survived were mostly contained as far away from anything sensitive as possible. They were in control of themselves again, but unfortunately didn’t remember anything from their time under. Hardly helpful.

“Over?” Alex said with a laugh. The androgynous angel was sitting on a sandbag, paring her nails with a mirrored knife that looked like it was built very specifically to disembowel people. “The political shitstorm from this is going to cripple us. And that’s assuming there aren’t any more sleepers.” She smiled grimly. “I think we can all agree that’s hardly likely.”

George let out another barrage from his minigun. “They probably got all the ones who were here,” he mused. “It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Unfortunately, that’s not guaranteed,” Kelly noted. “The Composer could have programmed them to act only under a different set of circumstances, in case there were survivors who could talk.”

“Five percent turned,” Flynn muttered. He couldn’t do much, since he didn’t use guns, but he was proving to be a pretty good spotter. “Exactly five percent. There’s no way that’s a coincidence.”

The pyro leader, Guilliman or whatever, spat out the rest of his cigar and ground it under his heel. “By my boiling blood, you’ve got that right. One of my best friends tried to kill me today. Your Ice Queen had better come up with a solution, fast.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What kind of solution? You think she can just magically tell who’s a sleeper and who’s not?”

He shrugged. “Better than I can, I’m sure.”

Flynn tried to change the subject. “You called your boss yet?”

The vampire nodded, the fuel tank on his back clanking. “He said to stay put and cooperate with the ‘sarians. They’re our only chance of getting out of this.”

Jarasax shot another screamer, and another hazmat team ran out. “I think the Composer was just trying to scare us. He has to be more limited than it seems. Otherwise, none of this makes sense.”

I let off a few more shots, though I didn’t hit anything outside of the small horde, still too large to take on at once. Hopefully I’d attract only a few; they weren’t quite smart enough to rush us all at once, thankfully. “What do you mean, doesn’t make sense? We’re fighting superpowered zombies.”

The Middle-Easterner shook his head. “Think about it. As far as we know, he could have hooked a singer up to some speakers, or hypnotized his way into NHQ. So why hasn’t he?” He shrugged. “The only reason I can think of is that he can’t.”

Flynn frowned. “You’re a changeling. You should know better than anyone that sometimes the enemies’ goals just do not make sense.”

Jarasax narrowed his eyes. Flynn was on dangerous ground here. “What do you mean?”

“If he doesn’t want to infect the city, his goals start to make more sense,” the swordsman said. “Maybe he’s trying to…I don’t know, harden us. Make us stronger.” He pointed off towards the horde. “Two o’clock.”

I took his direction and popped another screamer. “How does that make any sense? People are dying, not getting stronger.”

“It’s Domina City. People die every day.” He shrugged noncommittally. “Besides, it’s just a theory. And I didn’t say he was right, just that its the only way I can think of his actions making sense.”

Guland—that was his name, Guland—lit another cigar with the igniter for his flamethrower. “Or he’s crazy as the fey. Maybe he thinks this is fun.”

George gestured out at the devastated landscape, shattered buildings, and bustling medics trying to save what few they could. “This is fun?” he demanded in disgust.

“We’re not the ones who set up the game,” Guland pointed out, as he let loose a burst from his flamer on a cluster of skins. “We’re just more pawns.”

“Speaking of pawns,” I muttered. There was someone, a giant it looked like, running across the ruined street away from the camp, dodging the skins. “Who’s that?”

“Poor idiot,” Flynn agreed. “What does he think he’s doing?”

Guland shrugged. “Someone probably convinced him we needed a scout. Which we don’t.” He let loose another blast. “Burn the earth in front of you and sift through the ash later, that’s how you scout.”

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Alex said slowly, tracking the man with a monocular she had pulled from somewhere. “He’s got something on his back. A bag of something.”

“Maybe he’s planting explosives,” I suggested. “You know, bottle these guys up and make them easier to handle.”

George didn’t seem convinced. “Maybe…but we’ve got dozens of Canians around. They’d know explosives better.”

Kelly snapped her phone shut. “I’ve got the answer. That was a text from MC. The jackoff stole a bundle of stimpacks.”

I frowned. “That’s the accelerated healing stuff, right? Why would he steal those?”

“Fungible material,” the vampire explained. When she realized I didn’t know what that meant, she elaborated. “They’re easy to turn into money. In high demand, but not expensive enough that everyone’s going to be looking for them. He can turn a decent profit off those.”

“Scum,” Flynn muttered, spitting on the ground. “Stealing medical supplies from a warzone? Men and monsters, at least the zombies attack you from the front.”

That’s when I had a really stupid idea.

“I’ll go get them,” I promised cheerfully. I vaulted over our improvised barricade, and gave a quick half-salute to Kelly. “Tell Derek I’ll be back soon.” I started running.

“Anders! Get back here! Blood and shadow—no, don’t follow him! Just cover him!”

I barreled forward, dodging past the skins. There were a lot of them, and I would have been quickly overcome, but the retinue and the others followed Kelly’s instructions, sniping zombies that got too close or seemed about to box me in. With their help, and a few well-placed blasts from my shotgun, I made it safely through the horde in minutes.

It didn’t take long to spot the alley the thief had dodged down. It had a few trucks blocking the entrance, which would be enough to keep the zombies from getting through.

Probably.

Thankfully, as a thinking creature, I was able to climb up on top of one of the boxy trailers pretty easily, where I had a good view of the alley ahead. I didn’t see anyone, which was odd. It was a dead-end alley. There were a couple dumpsters he could hide behind, but he was a giant. You’d think I’d be able to spot him.

Well, no other way to tell than to just jump right in. I pulled out my St. George and swapped the buckshot rounds I had been using for one of the Teflon-coated armor piercing slugs I had bought from Turgay about two weeks back.

Never hurts to be prepared.

I dropped down into the alley, eyes in front, ready for anything…

And immediately felt the barrel of a gun pressed again the back of my skull.

The bastard had been hiding in the shadow of the truck. Or maybe in the truck. God dammit…

“Drop the gun,” he ordered.

“I was just worried you’d get overwhelmed by the skins,” I said calmly. “No need to get upset.”

Drop the gun, ‘sarian.”

“Technically I’m sort of a Necessarian auxiliary, not officially part of—”

“Do you know what this is?” he asked, tapping the back of my head with the barrel of his gun meaningfully. “This is a MD92/14.5 Hand Cannon. One of the first guns made by the McDowells.”

I blinked. “Wait, as in Senator—”

“His brother, yes. It’s a fourteen-point-five millimeter pistol. That’s bigger than most sniper rifles. It’s insane. Ridiculous. No one needs a gun this big. You’d snap your wrists on the first shot if you tried to use it.”

He cocked the gun with a loud click.

“Unless, of course, you’re a giant. Now drop the gun, Anders. I won’t ask again.”

He knew my name. How the hell did he know my name?

Something to worry about later. I did as he ordered, tossing the shotgun a few feet to my left.

“The others, too.”

Damn. I peeled off my Sica and my Caedes and tossed them to my right. I unbuckled the clasps locking my Athena in place, and tossed it in the pile too, then raised my empty hands over my head.

“Now what?”

“On your knees.”

“Hey, if you think I’m going to just let me execute me—”

He shoved me hard in the back, forcing me to stumble forward a few feet.

“All right, all right,” I muttered. “I get the message.” I knelt down on the dirty alley floor, grateful for my jeans. “Actually, would you mind if I sit down? More comfortable that way.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

I switched to a cross-legged position that was easier on me, but also harder to stand up quickly from.

It appeared to lull the giant into a sense of security, because he walked around until he was in front of me. He still kept the gun leveled at my head, though.

And dear God, he was right about it being big. Even in his massive hand, it looked huge.

The man himself was eight feet tall and built like a body builder, with biceps literally the size of my head. He was wearing a white t-shirt, which showed off his muscles a little more than I was comfortable with, and had a leather bag slung over his left shoulder.

“I know you,” the giant said slowly. “Been hearing rumblings about you.”

I narrowed my eyes. Had he heard I was working with the Paladins? “Really.”

“Yeah. Huntsman gets a new monster slayer buddy, it’s a bit of news in certain circles. And then he let you fight a gargant without him?” He whistled appreciatively. “You must have some serious skills, to merit that treatment. Huntsman fusses over the men under him like a mother hen. I’ve never heard of him letting a hunt go down without him.”

Okay, as long as he didn’t know about the Paladins, it was fine. “What’s your point?”

“I did some research on you. Not much, but enough. I know you’re from New York, but that’s about it. Maybe you’re a military brat, maybe you’re just another street thug. Whatever, I don’t care.”

He brought his face close to mine, while keeping the barrel of his gun pressed firmly against my forehead. His hand didn’t waver a centimeter.

“But you’re not in America anymore, brat. This is Domina. You’ve been under Huntsman’s wing, so you’ve been protected. You don’t know what this place is like.”

I gave him my best death glare. He didn’t seem impressed.

“As you are aware,” I said evenly. “I killed a gargant. Mostly by myself.”

He didn’t seem to care. “I started out as a demon. A hellion, actually.” He chuckled. “Then I got an offer from the Thors, decided to become a giant. Simple enough. Thing is, my Devil didn’t want me to go. So I had to kill him and a dozen of my friends.”

I didn’t say anything.

“The Culture Wars are part of Domina and the toy maker, more than Butler and Clarke will ever admit. They think it’s just kids playing dress-up, but it’s war.” He looked down at me with a grin. “That’s my problem with you. You think the same as they do, but you don’t have an army to back you up.”

“I’m beginning to wish you’d just shoot me.”

“You sheltered little brat. You’re still acting like this is a game. Like nothing that happens matters. This isn’t your country. If I shoot you, I don’t have to worry about cops or jail time. I just have to survive long enough to make coming after me no longer worth the trouble.” He grinned. “Butler likes to pretend he can protect people, but he can’t.”

“Maybe I don’t need protecting. You know nothing about me,” I said evenly. “You admitted as much yourself.”

“And you haven’t been listening,” he replied chidingly. “There are no laws here, other than ‘don’t cause too much trouble.’ And you? Hardly any trouble at all.”

“The Big Boss doesn’t like people breaking his soldiers. Besides, maybe I’m more than you think—”

“I know you’re a clay.” He grinned wickedly. “You seem to think that makes you unique. And you’re right, it does. But mostly? It just makes you weak.” He drew a line on my cheek with his claw. “Fragile.”

I ignored the burning sensation with difficulty. I wasn’t going to bleed out from a scratch on the cheek, but I was worried about poison. Giants didn’t usually have poison, but still. I needed to get out of this quickly.

“I may be weak,” I managed in a calm voice. “But your toys make you arrogant.”

The giant chuckled. “I can afford to be arrogant. I’m bulletproof.”

“You sure?” Then I pulled the trigger.

It had taken me a few minutes to maneuver my Saint George into position without him noticing. If I hadn’t stumbled over to it when he first shoved me, I wouldn’t have been able to at all. It was a big gun, difficult to keep out of sight, but I knew it was the only thing I had that would be able to do real damage to him.

So when the time was right, and I had the weapon carefully hidden between my legs, I brought up the barrel and fired straight into his chest.

It also bucked hard into my crotch, driving the wind out of my lungs and making me sick to my stomach. My condition didn’t improve when the damn giant collapsed on top of me, some three or four hundred pounds of muscle just bleeding on my chest.

I was already losing feeling in my legs, but I couldn’t even get my arms free to move him. I needed to…crap, what could I do? I couldn’t call for help from this position, and I couldn’t reach my phone. If I started yelling, I’d attract the screamers. And Necessarius wouldn’t be here for hours…

“Hold still,” a pleasant male voice instructed. “I’m going to roll him off you. Don’t want your hand getting caught.”

I turned to my left to see a thin young man with gray skin and a shaved head emerging from deeper in the alley. He, at least, was normal sized, so I guess it made sense that he had been hiding behind one of the dumpsters or something. But why hadn’t he come out before now?

Oh, right. The giant with the stupidly large gun. That might have something to do with it.

I at least managed to keep my mouth shut for the five or so minutes it took for him to roll the corpse off my legs. It was only when I started regaining feeling in my extremities that I felt it was the right time to start asking questions.

“Who are you?” Right, politeness. “I’m grateful for the help, but I’m a little surprised you just happened to be squatting in this alley.”

“Oh, it wasn’t a coincidence,” he said with a forced smile. “The giant was going to give the stimpacks to me.”

I did a double take. “Wait, what?”

“We planned to meet up here to baton-pass the medicine and throw off suspicion,” he clarified. “But then he decided to get cute and try and rant at you instead of just killing you. Or waiting for you to leave. Or dropping the medicine where I could find it and then running. Really, anything besides ranting at you for five minutes would have worked.” The man kicked the corpse. “Freaking Blackguards. Think they’re better than the rest of us.”

I tried to ready my gun without him noticing. “Are you going to kill me now?”

The man shrugged. “I don’t see a reason to. No orders to, though I suspect if we meet again, that will have changed. And as you pointed out earlier, killing you could cause problems. A couple thousand bucks of stimpacks is not worth the wrath of Necessarius.”

I thought about what he was saying, paired with the fact that he seemed more annoyed with the corpse of his compatriot than concerned with the bag he had been killed over.

“You can go,” I said finally. “I won’t stop you.”

He smiled, and tipped an imaginary hat to me. “Thank you, Mister Anders. I really do hate killing when I don’t have to.” He walked back into the alley, towards a fire escape. “When Huntsman debriefs you, try and jazz me up a bit. Give me a cape or something.”

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 69)

Here’s an explanation of “flamers” and such (meant to use it for Cutis, but I had other things to rant about):

 

There are three general types of “flamethrower” weapons in Domina, most of which are sold by the Canians.

 

Flamers are standard video-game style flamethrowers. They spray a cloud of flammable liquid or gas, which is then lit by an igniter located near the nozzle of the weapon. Their range is horrendous (twenty feet on a good day), but they are useful against swarms of small monsters, and anything else that requires close-up work.

 

Flamethrowers are military-spec weapons, and shoot a long stream of burning liquid. They are extremely dangerous and moderately long-range, but tend to burn everything between the weapon and the target. While they do have their uses, they typically cause more trouble than they’re worth.

 

Incinerators are the more popular long-range choice, although they are also more expensive. They fire globules of burning napalm which burst on impact. This gives them a much more limited area of effect, which is useful if you don’t want to set the entire street on fire.