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 86 – Electus

ELECTUS

SIMON

“Strange?” Seena asked, taking a sip of my drink before I could stop her. “Strange how?”

I gave up trying to rescue my beverage from my sister and just shrugged. “I don’t know…like halfway through talking to me, he realized he was saying something he shouldn’t.”

It was the morning after my little talk with Steve and Kevin; it was the earliest I’d been able to meet with Zusa. She’d decided to bring along Seena, Delphie, Veda, and Yolanda, which I approved of, especially Yolanda. The blonde demon sat to my right, with my sister to my left. It was a good brainstorming group, as long as we didn’t get off topic.

Unfortunately, she’d also brought Jelena.

Zusa apparently hadn’t gotten the memo, and looked at the Glasyan with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve been scratching all morning.”

Jelena grimaced, her arm arched behind her head to get at her back. “Got an itch on my spine that won’t go away.”

“Have you seen a doctor?” Seena asked with well-faked innocence.

As expected, the pale girl nodded. “Glasya herself checked me out. Said nothing was wrong, it was just a psychosomatic reaction to my capture.”

I felt for the poor vampire, but there was nothing I could do. Glasya had explained to Seena that Jelena’s spine was now a large radio transceiver, similar to the ones the fey used in their homunculi. It wouldn’t allow for any kind of direct control, but all her sensory data was being piped directly to one of the crazy naked bitches.

Jelena didn’t know any of this, of course. Which was probably why she was scratching the back of her neck, a frown on her face.

“Then I’m sure that’s all it is,” I lied with as straight a face as I could muster. Luckily, she didn’t seem to be paying much attention to me, otherwise she would have seen right through the ruse.

“That’s not—” Yolanda blushed as everyone turned to her, but still managed to stammer out “Simon was saying something about MC.”

I brushed my hair back. “Uh…yeah.” I didn’t really want to talk about it in front of Jelena, though. “I just need to figure out how to convince her to talk to someone really paranoid.” Then I shrugged. “Well, I guess I really need to find a way to get him to talk to her.”

“It’s MC,” Jelena noted. “If he can’t trust her, who can he trust?”

I winced. “Yeah…this guy is paranoid enough that that’s not a good argument.”

“Bah,” Veda said with a wave of her hand. “That part is easy. You give him an ultimatum. Tell him he can talk to her or…” she waved her hand again. “Or something bad happens. I don’t know the situation. No,” she leaned forward eagerly, her furry ears twitching. “What I’m interested in is your suspicious roommate.”

Seena put my drink down. “Why? What’s so special about him?”

“Well, your brother thought it was worth mentioning. I’m curious as to exactly why.”

I shrugged again, a little uncomfortable at the attention I had heaped on Kevin without his knowledge. “I don’t know, I just thought it was weird. He seemed so confident, and then just did a complete 180.”

“You probably said something stupid and didn’t notice.” Delphie didn’t even bother looking up from the mouse she was feeding in her lap. “You do that sometimes.”

I sighed and put my face in my hands.

“Aw, you broke him,” Veda crooned. “Be nice, mousie.”

“This from you? You’re the one who almost got us killed yesterday when you called those orcs ‘retarded vampires.’”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Didn’t…you spend too much time on the internet. It’s desensitized you.”

I looked up and interrupted before Veda had a chance to respond. “So, there was another screamer attack the other day.”

Seena quickly jumped on the opportunity to switch subjects. “Yeah, five days ago. That was…Tuesday?”

Jelena leaned forward. “Yeah, that’s right. Reports are scarce, but I heard that the Composer unleashed some kind of secret weapon. Killed most of the ‘sarians.”

Zusa frowned. “The screamers just hardened their skin, right?”

The Glasyan shrugged. “That’s what the official report says. But does that sound like something that could kill ninety percent of the Necessarians involved?”

“Hellions and Thors,” Yolanda corrected quietly. The blonde demon blushed, but continued. “My uncle said most of them weren’t from Necessarius. The General and the Hammer sent men to support the Paladins.”

Veda shook her head. “No, that doesn’t make any sense. They aren’t exactly on the best terms with Butler. Actually sending troops out under his command would—”

“—would take something major?” I finished. “Like, for example, a zombie apocalypse?”

The cherve shut her mouth quickly.

“Simon’s right,” Jelena noted. “The cultures were all gearing up to work together.”

Seena sipped at my drink. “Were?”

The Glasyan smiled grimly. “They lost a hundred men or more each the first time they tried it. You think they’re going to keep it up after that? Everyone’s digging in, fortifying their bases. No one is sending Butler men anymore.”

Veda regained her courage. “That’s good. The fortifying, I mean. Before, they were basically just milling around, waiting to get attacked.”

“I don’t know…” I said slowly. “Is that really a good idea? It seems like this is exactly what the Composer would want.”

Zusa smiled. “Oh, come on. You can’t pretend to understand what he’s thinking. It’s like the fey; they’re all crazy.”

“The fey can be dealt with,” Jelena pointed out. “The Composer might not even exist.”

The cherve nodded. “Yeah, I’ve heard that theory. They say the hackers are just screwing with everyone.”

“The ‘sarians definitely think he’s real,” Yolanda whispered. “Wouldn’t they have a better idea than anyone else?”

Jelena shrugged. “Well, it makes them feel better if they’re getting their asses kicked by an actual person, rather than just a mindless horde of zombies. I don’t know if you noticed, but they stepped up the whole ‘Composer’ thing after this latest debacle.”

I finally grabbed my drink back from Seena. It was mostly gone, but there was still some left. “So, what, they’re just blaming someone convenient and running scared?”

“Everyone’s running scared. I’m sure Headlights can attest to that.” Veda glared, but Jelena just grinned back. It faded after a moment, though. “But yeah, they’re scared. Everyone’s scared. The warlords are pulling back, the ‘sarians have their hands full with captured screamers, and the Paladins are still only five people.” She shrugged. “I know I’m thinking about packing off to one of the other parts of the city.”

“That’s a panic reaction,” Seena admonished, as I carefully dodged her attempts to retrieve my drink. “That is exactly what the Composer wants.” She waved her hand. “Or if there is no Composer, it will still play into the zombies’ hands. It’s herd mentality. If we bunch up, that just makes us juicier targets.”

“She’s right.” Delphie’s mouse had disappeared when I wasn’t looking. “Trust the assassin to know a thing or two about killing.”

My sister buried her face in her hand. “I told you, it’s not like that…”

Delphie waved away her complaints. “You work in a bookstore, you learn how to read. You work around assassins, you learn how to assassinate. You overhear stuff. I’m not insulting you, sweetness, I’m just acknowledging you know what you’re talking about.”

Seena readjusted her daygoggles for the umpteenth time. “Yeah…it’s just not something I want to be known for.”

Zusa wisely steered the conversation back on topic. “So what are we supposed to do, then? If bunching up will get us killed, then—”

“Bunching up is different from herd tactics,” Veda interrupted. “Herds run away. The cultures are fortifying.” She shrugged. “I guess that’s the right idea.”

“They need to make friends,” Zusa corrected. “Fortifying is all well and good, but if the cultures united, no one would be able to touch them.”

“Right now, the cultures are just slightly harder targets,” I mused. I was more determined than ever to make sure Aramazd and MC allied. It was in everyone’s best interest; I had to be able to convince him of that.

“Not really anything we can do, though,” Delphie grumbled. “Like Jelena said, no one is willing to take a chance right now.”

The Glasyan in question leaned back in her chair, a pained expression on her face. “Maybe it will get better in a few weeks, but I have a feeling someone is going to get hit pretty hard before then. Probably the demons.” She turned to Yolanda. “None of your domains have been hit yet, right?”

The girl shook her head. “No…and I have a feeling you’re right about us being next.” She grimaced. “I guess there’s a decent chance this will be the last any of you see me.”

Death is a fact of life in Domina. More so since the screamers appeared; two of my friends had died at Triple I, and another one was screaming. It’s rare to really have a good idea of when you’re going to die, though. We don’t have much disease, and bullets kill faster than sickness anyway.

So this left us all with a very unique opportunity. We could try sequestering her in the domain of a culture that had already been hit to reduce her chances of getting caught in an attack, but in the current political climate, that probably wouldn’t work. Besides, what about all the other demons?

I could see it in her eyes; she was planning to stay with her culture, probably die at the next attack. She was stronger than she looked.

We could have a party, or something. Not a funeral, since that would jinx it, but even just spending more time together would make her happy. It was the least we could do, and from the looks on everyone’s faces, they all agreed with me.

So I pulled her close and kissed her.

Behind the Scenes (86)

This is…eh. I had difficulty writing it, much more than I had any right to. But I still think it came out okay.

Oh, and about Simon’s comment: Disease isn’t anywhere close to defeated in Domina. It’s a little better than our world, between the disease-resistance buffs and just general higher-quality medicine world-wide, but deaths from disease are still extremely rare. Generally, if someone gets sick enough so that their life is actually in danger, they’ll be killed by someone—maybe an old enemy, maybe just a thief, whatever—long before the disease has run its course. It’s to the point that if someone recovers from a life-threatening disease, they are often assumed to be a doppelganger, an identity thief who murdered the original after using the toy maker to disguise themselves.

Scene 61 – Insidiis Mures

INSIDIIS MURES

DELPHIE

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

My sister.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I ground my teeth together. “You crazy—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I told you. We want powers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 61)

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

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

Scene 28 – Oblitus

OBLITUS

SIMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Twenty-nine. Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A blank chat window popped up.

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

Then a message appeared.

<Ever ever dies the storm.>

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

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

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

<Ever ever lies the fight> appeared next.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<stop talking>

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

<WHAT do you WANT>

<First and foremost, punctuation,> she admonished.

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

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

<Says the naked girl.>

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

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

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

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

<What do you need?>

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

Oh shit.

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

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

I didn’t have a choice.

<Yes.>

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

<How long will it take?>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tiamat Raaze 4.4 Special.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 28)

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

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

Scene 22 – Cotidie Vitam

COTIDIE VITAM

SIMON

“Hey, Simon!”

I turned to see Delphie waving at me from across the street. She was standing with Jelena and a few girls I didn’t recognize; probably their roommates. I jogged over to them, only pausing for a moment to let a big truck pass.

“Hey Del, Jel.” They both scowled, and I grinned. It was fun teasing them, but one of these days they were gonna claw my eyes out. “Who’re your friends?”

Jelena rolled her eyes (she wasn’t wearing her daygoggles), but answered. “This is Yolanda,” she indicated a young-looking blonde demon with small horns, who smiled politely. “And this is Veda.” The bronze-skinned Indian girl nodded by way of greeting. She had kemo ears instead of human ones, but I couldn’t quite tell what species. Something brown and furry, which didn’t narrow it down at all. “They’re my roommates.”

“And I’m Zusa Pham, Delphie’s roommate,” the third girl introduced herself, reaching out to shake my hand. I did so, careful to avoid the claws. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Veda warned, and from the winces at that I realized belatedly that I had been called over in a failed attempt to derail a conversation no one wanted to listen to. “You haven’t explained just what the hell is wrong with VCS: Shootout III.”

Zusa shook her head. “Besides the fact that its an FPS based on an RPG based on a bad anime? It’s exactly the same as the second one. And they screwed up the shotgun!”

“That’s how shotguns act in the show. Its more accurate.”

“No, that’s just the problem. I have better aim with the garden hose.”

“The garden hose is a joke gun—”

“I know that, that’s my point—

“The baseline is Pam, Seena’s roommate,” Jelena cut in, trying to put a cork in the inanity.

Unfortunately, the girl with the reddish hair didn’t seem to appreciate it. “I think I can handle it myself, thanks.”

In an attempt to defuse another situation before things got out of control, I smiled and held out my hand. “Pleased to meet you. I’m Simon, Seena’s brother.”

The baseline smiled shook my hand firmly, then glared at Jelena. “See, he can be polite.”

I let go of her hand and glanced around. “Where is Seena, anyway? I thought she didn’t have any classes on Friday.”

Jelena winced. “She’s…avoiding us a little. She told us yesterday about something stupid she did a few years back.” She shrugged. “I mean, it’s no big deal, but…”

“No big deal?” Pam demanded. “She—”

Jelena immediately covered the other girl’s face with her hand.

“She did something embarrassing that she wouldn’t like spread around,” the Glasyan noted. She nodded to her and Delphie’s roommates. “Sorry girls, you understand.”

Zusa rolled her eyes—at least, I think she did. Hard to tell under the daygoggles. At least she had stopped arguing with Veda. “I know how that is. C’mon, let’s find somewhere to sit down.”

There was an internet cafe nearby, at the corner of Baator and Melange. We found a nice table outside in the shade, though it was still too bright for Zusa to take off her goggles—in fact, Jelena put hers back on. The kemo, Veda, immediately turned back to Zusa as though their conversation had never been interrupted.

“The fact that the guns are the same isn’t the point. The single-player is completely different, and the AI vastly improved.”

The vampire shook her head. “Who cares about single-player? The multiplayer scene is the same—or it would be, if anyone was playing it. The unlockable pistol breaks the game so much no one is even bothering.”

I waved Lily over as quickly as I could. I got enough of this at work, I didn’t want to listen to it here.

The little demon deftly interjected herself in a break in the conversation, managing to interrupt without actually seeming rude. “Can I get you anything?”

I glanced at the others. They just shrugged, though Zusa and Veda still seemed to be ready to start sniping at each other the second they had the chance.

“I think a few waters will be enough, thanks.” The little demon girl nodded and sashayed off, her tail swishing back and forth. I was considering getting one too, but I kept hearing bad things about them.

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” Zusa said with a grin.

I blinked. “What?”

“We all saw you staring,” Pam put in. “You know Lily doesn’t date anyone, right?”

Jelena drummed her fingers against the table. “She does one-night stands though, I think. Not often, but sometimes.”

I rubbed my forehead—almost slicing my hand open on my horns in the process—and sighed. Annoying as it was, at least teasing me had got them off that stupid game. “Nine hells, I was not leering.”

Pam rolled her eyes. “Sure. Whatever you say.”

“Seriously. I was wondering if I should get a tail, that’s all.”

“I wouldn’t recommend it,” Lily said as she started passing out glasses of ice water from her tray. She was a sneaky little thing; I hadn’t even heard her walk up. “They’re cool once you get used to them, but before that you’ll break pretty much everything withing five feet of you for about a week.” She put down the last glass and shrugged. “Plus, they’re not strong enough to be useful, you know? Unless you’re willing to spend a couple hundred bucks.”

“Well…thanks for the advice,” I managed. “I’ve just been thinking about getting some new toys, is all.”

“You should try a pheromone buff,” Delphie suggested. That’s also about when we all noticed that there was a mouse in her lap, nibbling on a piece of cheese. “They’re pretty useful.”

Zusa cocked her head. “Wait—you’re a murid? Is that why you hate laces?”

The brown-haired girl shrugged. “Sometimes they hunt us for sport.”

The murids were mice kemos. Delphie was a bit of an oddity in her subculture…in any subculture, really. All her toys were completely internal, so most people couldn’t tell she was anything but baseline. The only one I knew about for sure was the mouse pheromone buff she had just mentioned. She had a habit of befriending mice when she was bored.

Pam glared. “Could you not do that at the table?”

Delphie looked at her a little oddly. “What? It’s not like we’re eating.”

Jelena rolled her eyes. “Anyway, you guys hear about that screamer attack the other day?”

“Yeah,” I muttered. “It was a lot worse than the first one. Pretty much the entire area is gone, right?”

“Call if you need something,” Lily said as she quickly excused herself.

We didn’t pay her any mind. “I found some weird theories on the internet,” Zusa admitted. “Not really sure what’s real or not.”

“I heard Senator McDowell was there,” Jelena added. “Though that’s probably BS political stuff.”

“No…” Yolanda said so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. “He was definitely there.” Her tone made it clear she wasn’t just being optimistic about his honesty; she was certain of it.

I took a sip of water. “I’m not sure where you get your news, but since they didn’t release any pictures, how can you know?”

The blonde demon twiddled her fingers. “There were some pictures…but anyway, he’s my uncle.”

Jelena, who had been sipping her own water at the time, suddenly snorted so hard that water dribbled out of her nose. As expected, she didn’t let that stop her. “Wait, you’re one of those McDowells? I thought it was just a coincidence!”

Yolanda shrugged uncomfortably.

The Glasyan frowned. “Wait, isn’t his apartment in that area? I thought I read something about that.”

Yolanda shifted awkwardly in her seat. “His apartment was nearby, but it wasn’t hit. He was shopping right there when the attack started.” She smiled a little. Just a little, but it was still cute as a button. “Actually…you might be more interested in this part: He said he met the Paladins.”

Pam leaned forward at that. “Really. You know, I was half sure they were just bullshit ‘sarian propaganda.”

I rolled my eyes. “C’mon, the Big Boss doesn’t do that.”

The baseline let out a barking laugh. “Yeah, you keep thinking that.” She grinned a little cruelly at Zusa. “What about you, Zuzu? You look like an optimist too. You think he manipulates the media?”

The vampire glared back pretty impressively considering she still had her daygoggles on. “No, actually, I don’t think so.” Pam laughed, but the vampire continued. “Also, I need to ask you not to call me ‘Zuzu.’” She shook her head. “I hate that nickname, but Lizzy won’t stop calling me it.”

I set my glass down. “As in Elizabeth Greene?”

Veda finally looked up. “Wait, the voice actress?”

Zusa sighed. “Yeah, her.” She shrugged and sipped at her water. “You know how it is. She’s sweet, but once she gets an idea into her head she just won’t let it go. She spoke nothing but Vietnamese to me the first day we met, until I finally got up the courage to tell her I only understood like three words.”

Delphie grinned a little. “Yeah, that’s Lizzy.”

“But then she switched to Hebrew…” she sighed again. “I didn’t even tell her I was Jewish. She guessed from my name.”

I frowned. “Wait, what’s your last name?”

“I told you already. My last name is Pham. That’s Vietnamese. But Zusa is Hebrew.” The vampire waved her delicately clawed hand. “Or Yiddish. I can never keep those straight.”

“I still want to know about the Paladins,” Jelena insisted. She turned back to Yolanda. “Did your uncle say anything about them?”

But the demon just shrank back and shook her head, clearly overwhelmed by the attention. Lord help me, but she looked cute when she was embarrassed.

“Say anything about who?” Derek asked, as he pulled up a chair next to me.

I motioned to Lily, across the cafe, to get another water, and she nodded. “I thought you said you had a job today.”

He shrugged. “Pushed it back. I forgot Akane had kendo.”

I nodded in understanding. This was the first week of school, after all. It was only expected that not everyone remembered everyone else’s schedules quite yet. But still, it was a bit surprising to see him regardless. Usually when his plans fell through, he just found an excuse to stay at home researching or whatever. This was the first time we had hung out together outside of school in…I don’t know how long.

“Have you met everyone yet?” Jelena asked. “I know you know Delphie…”

“No, I don’t think so.” He smiled warmly as he shook Zusa’s, Veda’s, and Yolanda’s hands in turn, and they all introduced themselves. “Pleased to meet you all. I’m Derek Huntsman.”

Veda gaped. “Wait, that Derek? Lizzie’s boyfriend?”

He instantly turned red as a tomato. “W-what? No! We’re not…” he turned away.

The Indian kemo nodded. “Right, right. That’s what the blogs are saying. But aren’t you in love with her, or something?”

The blond man coughed. “T-that is highly personal, and I don’t think—”

“That’s a yes,” she declared immediately. She whipped her phone out, grinning. “I am so putting this on my Fundie.”

Jelena snatched up her phone before she could do anything and tossed it to me. “Don’t be stupid, Headlights. He asked you not to.”

Veda tried to reach across the table and grab her cell back, but I held it out of reach. “She’s right, you know.”

She sighed and stopped grabbing for her property. “But it’s not fair. She always blogs about her celebs.”

The Glasyan smiled. “I don’t know any ‘celebs,’ Headlights.”

The cherve—now that Jelena was referring to her as the short form of ‘Deer in Headlights,’ it was obvious that Veda was a deer kemo—actually laughed. “Oh, really? And I suppose you’re not itching to post about how you met Senator McDowell’s niece.”

Derek, having regained his composure, raised an eyebrow. “He has a niece?”

Yolanda waved a little weakly. So cute. “Yeah, that’s me.”

Lily placed Derek’s water on the table, and he took a sip. “I’m sorry, but I can’t quite remember which one he is. He’s the demon who keeps petitioning to get more infrastructure on the Fusion Islands, right?”

The blonde demon laughed for the first time since I had met her. Like before, when she had smiled, it was something else entirely. She was cute when she was embarrassed. She was beautiful when she was happy. “No, no, not at all. He’s an ursa anthro. Melano, to be exact.”

Derek spat his drink across the entire table, splattering everyone with the contents of most of his glass.

“He’s a SENATOR?” he practically shrieked. He had a completely dumfounded look on his face that I usually only saw when he was around Lizzy. “Big panda, maybe seven feet tall and built like a truck? Black fur clustered around his head?”

Yolanda frowned. “Yeah. You know him?”

“He…” he paused, searching for the words. “I saw some pictures of the burner attack on Monday. He was in a couple of them.”

Jelena chuckled. “Yeah, I saw those too. Not quite sure they weren’t photoshopped, but I’m coming around.”

I grinned and clapped Derek on the back, mostly to try and get him out of his shock. “Isn’t that good news? Disproves that stupid motto of yours.”

Jelena brushed her hair away from her horns. “What?”

“Non est salvatori salvator, neque defensori dominus, nec pater nec mater, nihil supernum.”

We all stared at Pam.

She shrugged. “We’ve met a couple times. It stuck with me.”

I shook my head to clear it. “Well, yeah, that’s the one. ‘The savior has no savior.’ Aren’t you glad that’s not true?”

He grinned back. “Yeah, definitely. It’s good not to have to be the white knight all the time.”

But his grin was weak, and I knew he didn’t believe a word of it.

Behind the Scenes (scene 22)

Normal-size rats still exist in Domina, but they are generally mistaken for dirty mice. A lot of the younger generation don’t even realize they’re separate species. ‘Mouse,’ therefore, can refer to either one. For the record, the one Delphie is playing with here is a mouse.

Also, Lizzy actually spoke Yiddish at Zusa. But as you may have noticed, she’s not really clear on all the details of her heritage, so she didn’t know the difference.

Scene 21 – Futurum

FUTURUM

SEENA

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

My friends, however, felt otherwise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jelena nearly choked.

I winced. “It’s not that bad…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shifted uncomfortably. “Nothing! Much…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked away. “…it’s not important.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, that’s it,” I lied, nodding.

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

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

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

I twiddled my fingers. “Ah…mine.”

Everyone stared.

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 21)

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