Scene 91 – Praeteritae

PRAETERITAE

KELLY

Alex ticked the names off on his fingers. “Barachiel, the Messenger. Domiel, the Mercy-Bringer. Erathoal the Seer, Pistis Sophia the Ascetic, Raziel the Crusader, and Sealtiel the Defender. And last is Zaphkiel, the Watcher.” He wiggled his fingers. “Those are the seven Arch-Saints. I’m not sure where you’re confused.”

George rubbed his forehead and lay back in the van. “Titan’s testes…I’m not an angel, and I’m not a vampire. Why would I care about your warlords?”

“Because it’s important?” The angel shook his head. “Look, not being to name all of them and their respective Heavens is understandable. But how could you ever mistake Lilith for one of them?”

“She doesn’t like being called that,” Sax noted absently from the driver’s seat.

I rolled my eyes. “She doesn’t like being called anything, it seems.”

“That’s not what I meant,” the giant insisted. “I thought she was a former angel. A fallen angel, you know? I wasn’t really paying attention back when everything was starting, so…” he shrugged. “I’m still a little behind the times.”

I frowned. “I thought you were at Bloody Thirteen.”

The giant shuddered, making the entire van tremble. “Don’t remind me of that, please.” He waved his hand. “But at the time, it seemed like just a new gang that was a bit crazier than usual. And besides, I wasn’t even with Necessarius back then. I was just a minor member of the Kongeegen party, working with the man who became Odin.”

Alex cocked his head to the side. “I thought you were more of an Iluvatar.”

“Sure, now. But the Kongs used to sound like a good idea.”

Well, this was getting interesting. “You know Odin?”

“Barely. Knew his sons a little better, but not by much. I never even talked to him after he became a giant. I got the package and everything, but I kinda went off on my own.”

“Oh yeah,” I said, nodding. “Gordok and all that, you mentioned…” I trailed off.

The van was surrounded by Belians.

How had we not seen them walk up?

It was high noon, but none of them were wearing daygoggles. They were all wincing at least a little, and were probably completely blinded by the sun. A normal vampire can adapt to even bright light over time, although they’ll still have headaches, but Belians had it worse. A lot of the drugs they took increased their light sensitivity.

Sax glanced around very carefully, trying not to move anything but his eyes. “I count six out front. Alex?”

“Six more in the back. We might be able to handle twelve blind chem-heads.”

“There will be six more, watching at a distance,” I said slowly, resisting the urge to scratch my fixer. “Probably armed with the remotes to the bombs these ones are carrying.”

“Titans…” George cursed. “They’re suicide bombers?”

“Depends on your definition. Suicide bombers usually know they have a bomb strapped to their chest. These guys probably didn’t even notice.” It was a popular tactic of the Belian warlords. Since their underlings were hooked on chems, that meant they were stupid and easily replaceable. Just kidnap some poor bastard off the street, give him a few chem-producing glands, and he’d be yours forever.

Alex glanced at me. We both knew what they wanted. Sax would too, but he still wouldn’t turn his head, in case it set them off.

“Once they’re distracted, drive off,” I ordered the changeling. “I’ll catch up.”

He grimaced. “No. They’ll—”

“They’ll do nothing.” I got out of the van and walked up to the first Belian.

She was a thin little slip of a girl, though I couldn’t tell if that was a side effect of the drugs or if it was something more natural. Other than the nighteyes and the fangs, she seemed normal. I did notice that blood stained her teeth, probably from biting her tongue or lips. Clearly, this was a newly-made vampire.

“Take me to your Noble,” I ordered, without showing any hesitation on my face.

The girl swayed a little, then nodded, and slowly turned around and headed away from the van. I was pleased to see the others following at a similar pace, freeing my friends.

I was still careful not to provoke the Belians. They might not be violent at the moment, but if I riled their blood, they’d tear me to pieces.

It only took a few minutes for them to lead me to our destination. It was an abandoned skyscraper, slated to be renovated tomorrow. Right now, however, it was completely empty, stripped down to the studs and concrete. I could see from one end to the other, since even the walls were gone. It looked like nothing so much as an empty parking garage.

A man sat in the very center of the first floor, far from any of the open windows, waiting patiently for his minions to bring me to him. He appeared as a white-haired middle-aged man, though it was impossible to determine his true age. He had blood-red skin, darkening to blue on his clawed hands, and wore loose black clothes with a high stand-up collar.

He smiled as I approached, standing to greet me. “Hello, hello…Kelly, is it?” His voice was smooth as silk, and only had the slightest trace of an accent.

I scowled. “No games, Chamo.”

He tutted softly and wagged a finger back and forth. “Don’t be so rude, my cel mic. You changed your name. I was just being polite.”

I hated his little pet names. My mother had been the only one allowed to call me cel mic. But I could endure his attentions for however long it took for the others to escape. “Let’s get down to the point. Why are you here?”

He sat down again with a sigh, wincing almost imperceptibly at the cheap folding chair he was using. “Noapte, you have no sense of decorum. Fine, right to the point.” He spread his hands wide. “Phlegethos is dying. With Belial dead, the Throne of Abriymoch is empty, and we cannot afford to have anyone fighting over it. Honored Naome is gone, suspected to be dead as well.”

I narrowed my eyes. “This has nothing to do with me, legate.”

He frowned. “Please, do not be obtuse. Your defection to Necessarius does not change who you are. We need every able fang we can find—and you are ever so able.”

“You don’t need me,” I insisted calmly. I indicated the Belians surrounding us. “You clearly have enough men. The court chemists are doing their job well enough.”

The vampire snorted in derision. “Men? These are not men, and you know it. They are sclavi, mindless slaves, nothing more. Zeabos and Zapan are…” he rubbed his forehead. “They are doing their best. But there is only one person who has ever been able to enjoy the benefits of both the physical chems and the mental ones at the same time.” His marble-black eyes met my own. “You.”

And things began to click into place once more. “You want a lab rat. I should have known.”

To my surprise, he waved his hand angrily. “Hardly, hardly. A list of your toys should be enough; we haven’t been able to find it at the domain, but at the very least the Nobles thought you might remember.”

“My mother had a copy. But—”

“Yes, it was likely destroyed in the Shendilavri Retaliation, I know. But all that is secondary.” He was starting to get a desperate look in his eyes, and it took a conscious effort of will to keep from taking a step back. “But even as a symbol…even as nothing more than a champion, you would be nepreţuit. Priceless, invaluable.”

“I’m not coming back. Period. Ask my mother if you want to know how she pulled off the trick. I sure as hell don’t know.”

Chamo narrowed his black eyes, but it would take more than that to intimidate me. I didn’t care if he commanded most of the subculture’s forces; I had never followed his orders.

He seemed to realize that at the same time I did, and instead of trying to cow me into submission, snapped his fingers.

His slaves strode forward, intent on capturing me, but I didn’t bother trying to flee.

I didn’t need to.

“Fii încă.”

All twelve of the drug-addled men and women stopped instantly at my command. They stood patiently, awaiting new orders.

Chamo, of course, wasn’t inclined to wait. He scowled and barked out a command of his own. “Sclavii! Prinde-o!”

His underlings didn’t move. They stood still as statues, obeying my order to the letter.

Chamo was sweating now, I could smell it. He was doing a good job of keeping it off his face, but that didn’t mean much against a nose like mine.

“Intraţi în formarea luptă,” I ordered. “Defensiv model, centrat pe mine.”

Again, they obeyed without hesitation, forming a screen between me and the increasingly terrified legate.

I managed to resist grinning at him, but only barely. Instead, I just raised an eyebrow. “Look, I can understand why you’re still using my mother’s behavior modification protocols. But at the very least, you should have sprung for a good pheromone buff.” I probably still would have been able to wrest them from his control, but it would have been harder.

“I will keep that in mind for the future,” he said slowly. I could hear his teeth grinding as he managed to keep himself from saying something stupid. He wasn’t a complete moron—far from it. He was a military genius, he just wasn’t used to fighting someone like me. He would not make a mistake like this again.

“You are going to give the warlords a message,” I explained patiently. “You are going to tell Balan, Bathym, Gaziel, and Gazra that I am not coming back. You will remind Zaebos and Zapan of the dangers of working with people like them.”

He nodded, perhaps a little too quickly. “Of course, I’ll tell them.”

I smiled cruelly, baring my fangs. “You don’t understand, Honorless Bloodsoaked,” I said, trying out the new insult Huntsman had developed a while back. “You are going to give the warlords a message. That is all.”

The vampire blinked, then, as realization dawned, leapt out of his chair and ran for the far exit.

“Prinde-l şi-l rupe în bucăţi.”

The sclavi bolted off as if shot from a gun, chasing after the fleeing nightstalker—ah, former nightstalker—with naked glee. He didn’t have the slightest chance of escaping them. Like most higher-ranked Belians, Chamo refused the physical-enhancing drugs and chems in favor of the mental-enhancing ones.

He tripped and stumbled, and the chem-heads were on him in a flash.

His screams echoed through the unfurbished building, bouncing off the concrete walls.

I didn’t have to stay. It would probably have been a good idea for me to run; the cries could attract attention.

But I stayed. I told myself it was because if you are going to murder someone, you should at least be willing to watch them die. But deep down, I knew the truth.

I suppose I was still a Belian after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 91)

I think this came out pretty well. Maybe too much name-dropping all around, but still.

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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 66 – Cutis

CUTIS

DEREK

I woke up when the screaming started.

It took me a minute to shake the sleep from my head, longer than usual. The interference from Butler’s captured zombies made it hard to identify new ones, but I could hear them coming from the North, probably past NHQ. I glanced at the clock; it was six in the morning. Not that bad at all.

I shook Adam awake quickly, and he immediately started getting ready. It was lucky he was even here. He had been going out with Lily most nights, doing who knows what. I don’t think she had an apartment, so it wasn’t that, but it still meant he only slept in our room about half the time.

We were ready in a few minutes, and when I opened the door Akane was waiting in her Minerva silk, looking frazzled. Ling, however was nowhere to be found.

“Where’s—”

Akane shook her head. “Don’t know, don’t care, let’s go.” She headed for the elevators before I could say anything else.

I shrugged at Adam a little weakly. “She’s never been a morning person.”

We went downstairs, collected Laura and the retinue, and headed north. Like last time, the van was mostly quiet. It was strange how empty it felt without one little fel who didn’t even speak.

“We’re going to have some help on this one,” Kelly said after a few minutes of driving. I noticed that she was scratching her fixer a little. “The General’s hellions and the Hammer’s Aesir will provide support.”

I was surprised. The two were hardly enemies, but they had never worked together either. “That’s wonderful news. How’d they manage it?”

“The Big Boss managed to convince pretty much everyone last night that an alliance was the only hope for survival. This is a test run.”

Adam frowned a little. “Okay, now…the Aesir are giants, right?”

“The first giants, actually,” George rumbled. “Though there is a little bit of argument on that.”

“Right. But I don’t think I’ve heard of the hellions.”

I chuckled. “Even I know that. They’re one of the first demon subcultures.” When he stared blankly at me, I elaborated. “They’re demon soldiers. Sargeras is in charge of…Laura, which Legion is he in charge of?”

The Legion,” she replied, without looking up from her phone. She seemed to be studying a map. “Also known as the Army. Their emblem is a red wasp.”

“Oh, right,” I muttered. “I forgot how unimaginative the General is.”

“And the Aesir?” Adam asked.

She just shrugged. “The standard mythological symbol. The threefold triangle, I think it’s called.”

“We’re here,” Jarasax said as he pulled to a stop in front of a nondescript ‘scraper. “Time to meet the neighbors. Watch your step, it’s a little bit icy.”

We piled out into a small square already crowded with armed men. On the left there was a Legion of demons, well-equipped with the latest anti-personnel weapons and with red wasps stitched on their shoulders. On the right was a clan of giants, carrying oversized guns and emblazoned with the threefold triangle Laura had mentioned.

A hellion and an Aesir were arguing in the empty space between the two camps, next to a fountain. That was the most important place to be at the moment; I walked up, with Laura following. Everyone else stayed behind, probably to check their weapons and such.

“We can’t send them in now,” the hellion was saying as I strode up. “We don’t even know what the screamers’ power is. We need more intel.”

The Aesir—a Thor, if the hammer sigil on his shoulder was any indication—waved a massive hand airily. “We don’t need them at all. Either send them in now and let them die, or force them to stay back. We don’t need to change our strategy to match a bunch of crazy vampires.”

“What seems to be the problem here?” I asked.

Both leaders turned to look at me, apparently surprised I was here. It was the hellion who spoke. “You’re the Paladins, I take it?”

I nodded. “I’ll be personally leading a small strike force. This is Laura. She’s strategy.”

The demon frowned. “Well, I’m not sure we need help…”

“You’re arguing,” I pointed out. “That means you need help.”

He shrugged. “Fair enough.” He scratched near his large horns. “The problem is that a couple Canians have shown up, and we don’t know quite what to do with them.”

Laura grimaced. “Who’s leading them?”

The giant barked out a laugh. “Leading? Leading Canians? If that’s your question, I’m not sure you should be in charge of strategy, little girl.”

She glared daggers at him, enough to make him swallow visibly.

“There’s always a leader, Honored Titan,” she said calmly. “Even if it’s just the one who happens to be in front. Where is the one who speaks for them?”

The giant pointed without saying a word.

“Thank you,” she replied scathingly, and walked off in the direction he indicated—farther down the no-man’s-land between the two armies. I nodded at the men and quickly followed her.

The Canians was closer to the screamers than the demons and giants, but still far enough away so that we couldn’t see the zombies. They seemed to be mostly confined to a street about ninety degrees to the staging area, blocked in by a barricade of cars. That’s also about when I noticed that the streets were relatively undamaged. Even the intermittent patches of frost were undisturbed. Did that mean their power was something non-destructive, or had they just not come this way yet?

Not important at the moment. The Canian leader was talking to someone, surrounded by perhaps two dozen of his men. The second man was clearly not a Canian; he didn’t have daygoggles or a flamethrower, for one thing. He seemed mostly baseline, of some South American ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He was arguing with the Canian pretty vehemently, but the pyro didn’t seem all that concerned. As we got closer, the crowd parted to allow us through, and I got a good look at the speakers.

I blinked. “Flynn?

He started. “Derek? Oh, of course you’d be here…”

“Yeah, but what about you? You’re not a Canian.”

The swordsman just shrugged. “My roommate is.” He indicated the pyrovamp he had been arguing with. “This is Guland.”

“Pleased to meet you, Honored Nightstalker,” I said diplomatically. “Are you the one who led these Canians here?”

He grinned around his cigar—a safe cig, if the smell was any indication—and nodded. “Meph didn’t want to come down himself. The Nessians are getting violent again. So I called up a couple of my kithmates, and they called a few more, and…” he grinned a little wider. “Here we are.”

Laura didn’t seem to care. “You need to stay back and wait for orders. You’re upsetting the plan.”

Guland’s fuel pack started to shriek as gas began to leak out. He reached back and adjusted a valve, quieting it, without even looking. “It’s not our job to take part in any plans, Mrs. Paladin.” He hefted his flamer. “We’re just here to burn things.”

“If you don’t at least have some idea what you’re getting into, you’re just going to get killed or infected,” Flynn pointed out. “Nobody’s asking for you not to fight, just cooperate a little.”

One of the other Canians, a shorter white boy with smoke-stained skin, spat on the ground in disgust. “Ca şi Iad. Ei toţi ne urăsc. Am putea foarte bine uita doar despre ele. Ei nu vor fi nici un ajutor.”

“He’s right,” Guland insisted, though damned if I knew what his friend had said. Languages were Lizzy’s department. “Worse, they’ll probably throw us on a suicide mission. We’re useful. Let us fight.”

“We’re going to,” Laura promised. “But you clearly don’t want to die, right?”

The pyro’s eyes narrowed. “That a threat, Mrs. Paladin?”

She met his gaze evenly. “Far from it, Honored Nightstalker. But right now you have two choices: You can rush the screamers in a kamikaze strike, or stay back with us and help us with building up our strategy. That way, when you do attack, you can be certain its not a suicide mission.”

He shifted the cigar around again. “And if it is?

The Spanish woman just shrugged. “Then you either take it, or you leave. Either way, you get to choose whether you live or die. No one can force you to do anything.” She smiled grimly. “But you won’t be getting any support if you go in alone.”

The Noble—at least I think he was at actual warlord level, it can be hard to tell—turned to the vampire who had spoken earlier. The smoke-stained pyro in question shrugged in defeat. “Se pare de bun cu mine, domnule.”

Guland sighed. “Fine. Fine.” He raised his voice. “Everybody, back up! We’re playing nice with the other kids on this one.”

The other vampires murmured in annoyance, but obeyed, holstering their flamers for the moment and returning to the demon and giant camps.

As we returned, the hellion raised an eyebrow. “That was fast. I figured it was a toss-up on whether they’d run off or you’d shoot them.”

“We didn’t have enough ammo,” I quipped. “So we settled for recruiting them instead.”

“We have more ammo,” the Aesir grumbled, glaring at the pyros in annoyance. “If you need it.”

I smiled a little weakly. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself. So what is the plan?”

“I’ll go in first with two of the other Paladins.” Akane was already walking up…which was when I remembered Ling wasn’t here. “Ah…one of the other Paladins. Laura will stay here and coordinate everyone. The others will act as a fireteam.”

“When you go in, be sure to call back with details on their powers as soon as possible,” Laura advised. “We can’t really do anything until we figure that out. Don’t want a repeat of the bleeders.”

“MC,” Akane said. All these people she didn’t know were clearly making her nervous, but I got the message and flipped out my phone.

“MC? You’ve got something for us?”

“Not much, sorry. There were singers before, but they’re out of sight now. And whatever spec the screamers have, it’s not something flashy.”

I frowned. “Well, if we’re lucky, we can still get to the singers. Akane and I will scout ahead, try and get more information.” That reminded me. “Oh, and call Ling for me, would you?”

“She’s not there?” MC asked, incredulous. “Yeah, I’ll ping her right now.”

“Thanks.” I hung up and turned to Akane. “Ready?”

She nodded, and off we went, with Akane conspicuously avoiding looking at Flynn. The barricade of cars was actually surprisingly difficult to bypass. Someone—the giants, probably—had physically thrown the vehicles together about three high until they blocked the entire way. Unless the screamers sensed enough people on the other side, they’d look for an easier path.

Luckily, we were smarter than the zombies. It took some doing, but we managed to clamber up to the top of the barrier quickly enough and get a good look around.

The street that greeted us was surprisingly empty. Well, it was full enough by most normal standards, with more people milling around than you could count, but for screamers that was positively empty. Normally, the horde was so massive you couldn’t even see the street beneath their feet.

It also became clear that whatever their power was, it wasn’t directly dangerous. They were destroying everything in sight; bashing in windows, stomping on appliances and so forth, but they were doing it all with their bare hands. They didn’t even have the intelligence to pick up weapons.

They were still screaming, of course, so I couldn’t really say anything to Akane, but we both knew what to do. We knew what their power wasn’t, it was time to figure out what it was.

We slid down on the zombie side of the barricade as quietly as possible, though with the toneless shrieking, I doubt it particularly mattered either way. There weren’t any within twenty feet or so of the barrier, but they’d notice us quickly.

I held my hand out to Akane, and she placed her Colt in it. True, I wasn’t very good with guns (not to mention my moral leanings on the matter), but I wasn’t going to tackle a superpowered zombie until I had some idea of what it was capable of. So I squared my shoulders, planted my feet, and took aim using both hands to hold the gun.

Then I fired.

The closest screamer stumbled back, stunned, before regaining its balance and resuming its wordless chorus. Of course, now it was aware of us, as were a few more nearby ones. They rushed forward as one, their undulating pitch making it difficult to think.

Okay, they were bulletproof. But I couldn’t tell how. They weren’t morphers, like the biters; in the early dawn light, it was easy to tell that they at least looked normal. Was it possible they had some sort of ability that let them deflect the bullets? Metal control, or something?

That was something to think on later. For now, we had to run. We couldn’t go back the way we came; we’d just end up leading the horde past the barricade.

We ducked into a nearby ‘scraper, jumping through the shattered ground-level window. The lowest store was just clothing, with all the racks knocked over and the shirts ripped up, but the next ones up were a few food places. That format popped up a lot, with food being cooked upstairs and eaten downstairs while people browsed.

We were ahead of the screamers for now, but I knew they’d catch up sooner or later. The way to prevent that was obvious.

So as we reached the third floor, I tossed a grenade over my shoulder.

Akane glanced back as she heard the grenade bounce, cursed, and sped up the stairs at superspeed. I don’t know why she was so worried. It wasn’t like it was a big grenade.

It exploded behind me a little too close for comfort, but I just popped a shield and didn’t feel so much as a flash of heat. The zombies howled in outrage before reverting to their emotionless screams. It was only when I reached the fourth floor—where Akane was glaring at me—that I turned to look at my handiwork.

The entire stairwell was on fire.

I had intended for the grenade to just take out a dozen steps or so. Just enough to make a hole too big for the screamers to jump over. But that’s the problem with incendiaries: They rarely just burn what you want them to. The fact that this building wasn’t quite up to code didn’t help either.

On the positive end of things, I could see a few zombies on fire, writhing in pain. So it seemed like the Canians would be useful after all.

“Should’ve at least used a frag,” Akane admonished.

I shrugged. “Probably. Too late now, though.” We needed to jump to the next ‘scraper before the fire gutted this one completely. Fortunately, it was a relatively short building, at only ten stories.

Unfortunately, that meant the next one over was too high to jump to.

The shortest adjacent building wasn’t that high, only about fifteen stories, but that’s still way too big a difference to jump. Even jumping down would have been a problem. But smoke was already billowing out of the stairwell, and this ‘scraper wouldn’t last much longer. Not to mention that the screamers might be attracted by the smoke. Were they smart enough to make that connection?

“I can jump that high,” Akane muttered, eying the distance. “But not while carrying you.”

Oh right, physics got a little bent when she activated her speed. Unfortunately, mine was useless here.

I frowned. Well, my ability might work. I hadn’t really thought about it, but my barriers could by either stable, floating in the air without moving, or mobile, and could be carried around. If I could…

I held out my hand and concentrated. This would be a little difficult, but I thought I could manage it.

I made the first shield about six inches wide and placed it face down a couple feet away from the edge and higher in the air. Then I made an identical one a few feet from that, and then another and another until I had a crude staircase up to the next roof. It looked good, but my reservoir was draining fast, and I wasn’t even sure it would support my weight.

Akane stared at me. “Don’t tell me—”

“Then I won’t,” I quipped, and jumped onto the first shield.

It held, mostly, though I could only fit one foot on it. The small part of my mind that kept track of them noted that the shield was weakening rapidly; they wouldn’t last more than a few seconds each.

It was difficult getting to the next one, and I was beginning to regret placing them so far apart. I had to stretch, balancing on one foot, until I could get my free leg up to the right level and leverage myself up. It got easier, but only barely.

I released each shield as I finished with it, lessening the rate my reservoir was draining, but I was still worried. Creating new shields cost more than maintaining existing ones, so I couldn’t just start over when I was in the middle of it. I just had to hurry.

I reached the next rooftop with maybe ten seconds to spare and had to resist the urge to collapse in the early morning sun. Straining the boundaries of my power was a workout, but not a physical one. It was hard to explain.

As I was still catching my breath, a blur arched over the short balcony marking the edge of the roof and landed a few feet away from me, throwing up a small cloud of dust and gravel. It quickly resolved itself as Akane, none the worse for her experience, and glaring daggers at me.

“Couldn’t you at least have tested that a little more?”

I bit back an angry retort. I get a bit defensive when I’m questioned, but she hadn’t meant much by it.

I flipped out my phone before I said anything I’d regret. “MC? We still don’t know what the screamers can do, but they’re bulletproof, and fire works on them. Tell Laura to send in the Canians.”

“Wait, Akane set another ‘scraper on fire?”

Where the hell was she getting her information? There weren’t any open-source cameras nearby. Well, I guess it was possible that the shop owners had decided to give her full access to theirs. That happened sometimes.

“Well, kinda, but it wasn’t quite on purpose.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better.”

“Hey, if you think you can do better than come down here yourself.”

There was a short pause. “Laura says figure out their specs, then fall back. She’s sending in the Canians now. Try to stay out of their way.” She hung up.

Wonderful advice. I slipped my phone away with a sigh. We weren’t even close to done here.

I spied a small plume of smoke from further to the west. That would be the pyrovamps, no doubt, coming at the screamers from a different side. I nodded to Akane, and we headed over to look, roofhopping to get there. Luckily these were close enough in height that they had ziplines and ladders set up, so we didn’t have to try riskier methods again.

We didn’t see any zombies as we traveled, but that made sense, with the Canians attracting so much attention. It also meant that we needed to get to them fast, before they were overrun.

They turned out to be holed up next to the second to last ‘scraper on the street. It was some sort of gardening store, which was probably where they got all the sandbags they had piled in front of them as makeshift barricades. They had probably used one of the back doors as a shortcut into the street. If there was a more obvious way through—like a road unblocked by piled cars—the screamers would undoubtedly have found it first.

Note I said next to the building. Any other group would find it far easier to set up inside, but these were Canians. Each and every one was equipped with some form of flamer, from the little Romanian guy and his pistol with incendiary bullets to Guland, with his massive fuel condenser and attached flamethrower.

I used my shield stair trick to walk down into the short alley between the two ‘scrapers. Akane landed next to me, glaring, but I ignored her. It had worked, hadn’t it?

“Guland!” I called, walking forward. “Any news?”

He turned back and grinned before roasting a few more zombies, who ran off squealing in pain. “Not much. The fires are keeping ’em off us, but I don’t think it’s killing them.”

Taking a closer look, I realized he was right. The smoke we had spotted were the screamers themselves, but they weren’t burning as much as they should. After a minute or two, the flames died and the screamer just came back for another run, usually with their burned clothing falling off. A few were staying down, sure, but not nearly enough.

“This doesn’t make sense,” I muttered. “You been able to tell what their power is?”

“Nope. They’ve just been rushing us, as you can see.” He let out another burst from his flamethrower. It was one of the saner, long-range types, which actually fired streams of burning liquid a few hundred yards. Some of the Canians insisted on using short-range versions, which just coughed out clouds of incendiary mist. It can be helpful at times, but it usually isn’t.

“I can check,” Akane whispered. “Quick.”

I thought about it for a moment. That was probably the best idea, since it would let her get a good slow-motion look at what they were doing, but it was hard to tell. What if they had some weird power that screwed with inertia or whatever, and forced her speed to backfire? Except that wouldn’t have helped them against the fire…

Bah. We needed intel. I nodded to her, and she blurred off.

“Hold your fire,” Guland called to his men. “Don’t hit the paladin.”

They didn’t stop entirely, of course—Akane wouldn’t be able to hold off even a tenth of the screamers by herself—but they did clearly make an effort to avoid the area she was running around in. It was hard to tell what was going on, since mostly it just looked like she was running up to them and blurring away without doing anything, but I trusted her enough to know better.

She repeated the pattern nearly a dozen times—move in at normal speed, move out at super speed—before she sped back to my side, and the Canians resumed shooting everything in sight (as opposed to merely most everything).

I raised an eyebrow at her.

“Skin,” she said with a shrug. “They harden their skin.”

I blinked. “Enough to deflect bullets?”

“Enough to deflect my sword.” That was actually more impressive. We hadn’t gotten around to actually testing it in a lab or anything, but it was pretty clear that at full speed her blade had more force behind it than most firearms. If these screamers were that tough, we had a real problem on our hands.

“What about their reservoirs? Were you able to deplete them?”

She shook her head. “But they can’t be very deep. Mine isn’t.”

That seemed to be the way powers worked. It was give and take. If you wanted more power, you got a smaller reservoir. If you wanted a bigger reservoir, you got less power. That was the trap Laura had fallen in. She wanted—or had been given—the power to detect lies all the time. So she ended up with a very weak power that she could use literally every second of the day. Worse yet, it didn’t seem to improve with use, unlike the rest of ours. It was still as useless as it was the first day we got them.

With such a strong power, these…skins had to be burning through their resources quickly. The only problem was they were retreating when that happened, so we didn’t get a chance to inflict real damage on them.

“We need to focus fire on one at a time,” I explained to Guland. “We should be able to outlast their power pretty easily.”

He nodded. I doubted he understood everything we were talking about with the powers, but at least he realized we knew more than him on this subject. “We just need to wait for Adonides. We’ll want everyone for this.”

That’s when I noticed the Romanian vampire was missing. I frowned. “Where is he? It’s not like there’s anywhere to go.”

The lead Canian just shrugged.

I sighed. “Fine. I’m going to call MC. One second.”

She answered immediately. “Derek? Jig back nowlike.”

“Uh…what?”

“The horns and hammers have gone out, plugging each other in the byway. Hell’s gonna fin, they can spawn mooks faster. Bathory either which.”

I did not spend enough time on the internet for this. “Just…calm down and speak English.”

There was a brief pause where I could imagine her taking a deep breath. “Warfield shot Johnsson, then the Aesir started shooting the hellions. You need to come back ASAP. You’re the only one who might be able to stop this.”

I cursed. “What’s Laura saying?”

“I don’t know. She shot Warfield in the chest and is trying to hold everyone apart, but not much luck there.”

I glanced around. The Canians were holding pretty well, and now that we knew how to defeat the screamers, they should be able to last. “Okay, we’re coming back.”

I turned to Guland. “The hellions and Aesir have gone crazy. Don’t do anything yet, just hold the line.”

He nodded. “Simple enough. We’ll call if something goes sideways.”

I patted him on the shoulder as we left. He was a good man, despite being a pyromaniac. I’d be really upset if he got turned.

We managed to reach the staging ground quickly by dodging through the ‘scraper the vampires had come through, but it wasn’t fast enough.

The place was a warzone. Both sides had already set up primitive fortifications, and were unloading cases of ammunition at each other. The hellions were mostly using assault rifles, while the Aesir were using large gatling guns, and a few were scrounging up missile launchers. There didn’t seem to be very many casualties; there weren’t that many corpses, anyway. I spotted the Aesir leader in the center no-man’s-land, minus a head, and some ten yards away the retinue, along with Adam and Flynn, were protecting Laura.

I summoned a large shield and ran over, skidding to a stop next to the upended car they were hiding behind. No one shot me in the process, which I took as a good sign. It seemed like both sides retained the presence of mind not to just shoot everything in sight.

“What the hell happened?” I hissed, as Akane blurred in next to me. “I thought everything was going fine.”

“The hellion just pulled out a shotgun and blew the Aesir’s head off,” Laura muttered, confusion in her eyes. “It was the strangest thing. It was like he wasn’t even aware he was doing it.”

Huh. “The Composer can control screamers, right? Maybe he suppressed it for long enough to get into a good position, or something?”

George shuddered. “That’s not a fun thought.”

“And not something we can deal with right now,” Adam cut in. “What’s the plan?”

Before I could answer, my phone rang. Not MC’s tone, just my default old-fashioned telephone ring. I picked it up, confused. “Hello?”

“Paladin?” Guland’s panicked voice greeted me. “Adonides went crazy! He started shooting everyone just as the screamers rushed us! We’re falling back, but we do not have the zombies contained.”

I cursed. “Belay that. You’ll just be fuel on the fire over here. Can you find a redoubt?”

Negative. We had to dump most of our flamers, we’re just running now. If we try and hold them, we’ll be slaughtered.”

I lowered the phone to explain the situation to the others, when I noticed that Laura was already on hers. Apparently MC had hooked her into the conversation. I put the phone back to my ear just she started talking. “Fall back to the staging area. We need all of them in one place.”

“Fair enough, Mrs. Paladin. Can you cover us as we come in?”

She glanced around. “Doubtful. Just get as close to us as you can. We’ll be at the south end. Derek will shield you as you cross.” She hung up.

“Wait,” Kelly said with a frown. “Why do you want us to cross to the other side? We’re safe enough here, and the screamers might convince the hellions and Aesir to pull their heads out of their asses.”

“It won’t,” Laura replied firmly. “You can count on that. And we need them all in one place.”

What did that mean? Well, I doubted she’d tell me, so I just nodded as if I understood. She was better at strategy than me. “Is everyone ready? I can shield us, but you need to stay as close to me as possible.”

Akane blurred off ahead—one less person to worry about—and the rest nodded. Jarasax and George looked worried, but Kelly, Adam, and Laura seemed to have confidence in my abilities. Well, I don’t think Kelly did, but she was ready for whatever came regardless.

“Let’s go,” I said decisively, and we went.

We dove headfirst into the hail of gunfire, Laura and I in the middle of the press of people. I raised a full shield immediately, but I could feel my reservoir depleting far too quickly for my taste. It was about a fifty yard run; our only hope was that both sides realized shooting us would bring the full might of Necessarius down on their heads.

Luck seemed with us, and the hail lessened until only a few misfires here and there plinked against my barrier. I still urged my friends on faster; I didn’t really want to find out what would happen if it failed.

Akane waved to us from behind the van, and we joined her just moments before my shield died.

“They’re crazy,” she said. “Saw their eyes. Blank, dead. Don’t know what they’re doing.”

Laura frowned. “All of them?”

The swordswoman shook her head. “No. But a few leaders.”

Laura sighed deeply. “Some sort of mind control. Wonderful. Not unexpected, but still.” MC called, and she picked up quickly. “Yes? Good, perfect. What about the Canians? Good, wait until they reach us.” She hung up and turned to me. “The pyromaniacs will be here soon. Get ready to shield them.”

I frowned at her. “What are you planning?”

“Just get ready to shield them.”

This did not bode well. But I had little choice; the Canians were rounding the corner, and the crazed demons and giants were already opening fire on them. At least they were clustered together, which made it easier to fit a barrier around them. But there were still almost a dozen (including an unconscious one Guland was carrying, which I assumed was Adonides), and unlike before the gunfire wasn’t slowing down. I didn’t know if I could hold it.

“George, Adam. Lay down some suppressive fire,” Laura ordered tersely.

They obeyed quickly enough, their guns distracting our erstwhile allies long enough to let the Canians survive the run. A few rounds hit the van, but they mostly left us alone. Shooting them had made them angry, but they still weren’t idiots.

It turned out to be mostly unnecessary anyway, since the screamers followed close behind. The hellions and Aesir quickly ignored the pyros in favor of the more dangerous and easier to hit target in front of them. The zombies didn’t seem to be taking much damage, but they were slowed.

My barrier fell almost thirty seconds before the Canians reached us, but luckily no one noticed fast enough to take advantage. “Paladin!” Guland cried, throwing the Romanian vampire to the ground roughly. A few of his men were injured, but none serious. “Burning blood, what is going on here? Why are they still shooting each other?

“We’ll explain later,” Laura cut in before I could respond. She turned to me. “How’s your reservoir?”

“Filling quickly,” I replied. “Why?”

“Let me know the second it’s full,” she said, not answering my question. She pulled out her phone. “MC, what’s the timing? Good. We just need a few minutes.” She huddled closer to me. “Everyone crowd in close. We all need to be covered by Derek’s shield.”

Well, I had figured out that she needed my power, but I still didn’t know precisely what. Judging from Laura’s side of the conversation with MC, reinforcements were coming, and we were the distraction. Fair enough, but I’d like a better explanation from her.

“I’m not sure about this,” George muttered. He was on his hands and knees, and still taking up the most space. But we’d be fine; the eight Canians that were left didn’t seem to have a problem literally piling on top of each other, so everyone was mostly within my area of affect. It would be a big shield though, and I wasn’t sure how long I could hold it. Hopefully they wouldn’t shoot at us too much.

“Isn’t there a better way to do this?” I muttered, as Adonides drooled on my foot a little in his unconscious state.

“Yes,” Laura said tiredly. “But there’s no time, and the van’s not reliable. Start the shield the second you hear whistling.”

I frowned. “Wait, whistling? What are you—”

But she wasn’t listening; she was on her phone again. “MC, go for it.”

I heard a shrill whistling, coming from almost directly above us, and put up my barrier as fast as I could, covering the retinue, the Canians, and of course all four of us Paladins.

Then the sky fell.

Bombs rained down, exploding shortly before they hit the ground, creating massive clouds of dust and fire. Nearly a dozen in all, on the entire square. I could hear the bombers overhead, and they clearly didn’t have time to sort out friend from foe. They did seem to be concentrating away from us, but even though nothing hit within a dozen yards, merely the collateral damage could have easily killed us.

After a minute or two, it stopped, and I lowered my shield with a sigh. “All right, first we need to see if any demons or giants survived—”

As I heard the whistle again, I only barely got my shield up in time.

More bombs fell. How many, I have no idea. A hundred, a thousand, it all blurred together as my brain got played like a drum. Dust and ash flew everywhere, until the outside of my barrier was completely black.

My shield failed soon enough, but the barrage continued. Nothing landed on us, but the chunks of flying concrete dislodged by the assault were dangerous enough. I couldn’t see anything; I could feel dust scraping at my eyelids and didn’t dare open them. But I already had a few injuries—cuts on my left side, and a bruise where something large had hit me in the shoulder.

After what felt like an eternity, the world stopped shaking. I opened my eyes with difficulty, the caked dust and shattered asphalt trying to hold them closed.

There wasn’t much left. The square was completely destroyed, the entire street pulverized. Most of the surrounding ‘scrapers were on fire or crumbling to the ground, and at least one was already flattened.

I turned and saw that Laura was trying to talk to me. My ears were still ringing, so I couldn’t hear her, but she seemed to be trying to justify her actions. I turned away. I wasn’t interested.

There was some movement in the demon and giant camps, but not much. A few of them had apparently had the presence of mind to hide under sandbags or other cover. It didn’t seem to have done them much good.

I saw someone standing up, and felt a shred of hope—until I saw that the person was between the two camps, where the screamers had been.

The zombie stumbled a little, clearly injured, but tried to drag himself forward anyway. More rose, trying to do the same. It was unclear how many had survived, but far more than hellions or Aesir. Had this all been for nothing? This entire exercise, a complete waste?

I groaned as something else occurred to me.

We still didn’t know where Ling was.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 66)

Why did the skins suddenly recover when they were set on fire? Simple: They turned on their powers, and suddenly they weren’t flammable anymore. Of course, other parts of them—such as their clothing, and the fuel still on their skin—still were, but they usually managed to smother those simply by spasming on the ground before their reservoirs ran out.

 

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Scene 49 – Mercennarium

MERCENNARIUM

KELLY

“That was probably a bad idea,” Alex noted as we got back into the van.

I waved at Obould’s boys loading the gargant into a truck. “It’s not so bad. It was fun, and no one died.”

George chuckled. “Boss, weren’t you the one saying we shouldn’t get involved with the Paladins more than we have to?”

I took off my daygoggles. The ambient light in the van was a bit softer than daylight, about the level of a lightbulb, which meant I could see fine, but it gave me a fierce headache. I could bear it for a little bit—I was tired of everything being dark.

“Maybe you guys are right. But we’re having a bad day, and I figured everyone could use a little R&R before another week or so of stakeout.”

Jarasax grimaced as he slid into the driver’s seat and started the engine. “That’s an understatement if I ever heard one. But I’m not sure this was the time or the place.”

“We did get to have a little fun,” George noted, as he scratched at his bandages. We’d need to get him better healing soon. “C’mon, Sax, you have to admit watching Adam kill that gargant was worth it.”

The changeling grunted. “Hardly. We both almost got killed. Hell, I didn’t even see the actual kill. Wouldn’t you have preferred to stay home over a few broken ribs?”

I rubbed my eyes. The headache wasn’t too bad yet, but the incessant sniping was getting tiresome. “Fine, Sax, next time we’ll leave you with the van. Happy now?”

He frowned. “Kelly, come on. I’m just looking out for the team.”

“Oh both of you stop,” Alex admonished as he polished his dayknives. “You’re both so overprotective it’s embarrassing. Though I suppose I should be grateful Mom let us have some fun today.”

I glared at the angel dangerously, but he just grinned back. “Don’t start that again, Alex.”

“I’m serious,” he said, warming to the subject. “Ling’s been chattering about this whenever she gets the chance.”

“Why to you of all people?” Sax asked. I had to admit I found it a bit curious too. Most people were a little leery around angels, and I hadn’t thought she was an exception. “Weren’t you just complaining we aren’t friendly enough with them?”

“Hey, I wasn’t complaining.” George shifted in his spot, warningly, and Alex hurriedly continued. “It’s just that the rest of the Paladins aren’t very sympathetic to her plight. She’s not a soldier, she’s just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

George grinned. “With superpowers.”

Alex smiled, and nodded. “Yes. With superpowers. They aren’t any more interested in listening to her theories than she is to listening about tactics.”

“I don’t see the point here.” My headache was getting worse, but I didn’t put the goggles back on yet. Besides, the pain distracted me from the fixer on my arm.

The angel shrugged. “No point, really. She was just talking about each of us fit into our own little archetype. Derek’s the hero, not to mention the father of his group. Laura’s the smart one, and the mother.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” George cut in. “If anyone is the father, wouldn’t it be Butler?”

“Adoptive parents, then. Derek is in charge of caring for them, that’s all I meant. Like how Kelly and Sax are the parents of the retinue.”

I rolled my eyes. “Cute, Alex. Very cute. What did I ever do to deserve this?”

“Oh come on, I’m serious! You take care of us, and we appreciate it.”

Sax looked at him sideways. “Yesterday you threatened to disembowel me and strangle Kelly with my guts.”

“Oh, you’ve never wanted to kill your parents?” Suddenly his grin faded, and he stopped polishing his knives. “I…guess not.”

Now that was surprising. “You knew your parents, Alex? You never talk about what happened before you joined your Host.”

He slid away his dayknives with a sigh. “That’s ‘cuz I don’t like talking about it, Kel. It was a slip of the tongue. Don’t worry about it.”

I frowned, reached over, and smacked him upside the head. “That’s bull. You know George’s story, and all the details of Sax’s escape.” I shifted around and lay back in the seat. “God, you even know everything about the shit storm that is my life. You don’t get to skip your turn on our little sharing sessions.”

The angel scowled. “Fine. My dad was one of the first angels, my mom one of the second-gen vampires. Dad killed mom, I killed dad. We done?”

An awkward silence fell in the van. I became acutely aware of the orcs outside, still cleaning up the gargant.

George shuffled uncomfortably. “God, sorry, Alex. I mean…I didn’t realize.”

Sax nodded. “Not knowing your parents is better than that.”

But I just glared at the genderless little freak. “No, that’s not what happened.”

He glared right back, and his hands went to the hilts of his knives. “What did you just say? If you think you know me—”

“That’s the plot to Vampire Carmilla Saizou,” I interrupted. “I bought you the disc for your last birthday.”

The angel winced. “Crap, I thought that was Adele. Ah, right. So my mom was a high-level vampire, and my dad a lupe—”

“If your mom was a loli, that’s Dance in the Vampire Bund.”

“Uh, I was told my dad was a pilot, by my aunt and uncle—”

Star Wars.”

“My dad was an antiques dealer and an abusive gambler, and my mom killed him with a cursed sword he got—”

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

He threw up his hands. “Saints above vampire, can’t you just let me have my cool origin story?”

My headache was getting close to unbearable. “Alex, you’re just making us curious.”

He leaned his back against the door of the van and sighed. “Fine. I was raised in one of Zaphkiel’s orphanages. Spent a lot of time watching TV. When I was eighteen—ten years ago—I took the glow and the eyes and joined the Host.” He shrugged. “You know the rest.”

George snorted, though he tried to hide it. “Well, I’ll admit I can see why you tried to hide it. It’s not very interesting.”

“Be nice,” Sax warned. “It took a lot for him to admit the real story.”

I sighed and finally put my daygoggles back on. “At least now I remember why you’d be friends with Ling.”

The ogre leaned forward a little. “That reminds me—Sax, what’s the word on that data dump Kat set up? The one using MC’s system?”

“Not much,” the changeling admitted. “I talked to Clarke and got the data, but its just a five minute audio file between a half-dozen fey, talking about something.”

I raised an eyebrow. It scraped against the daygoggles, and hurt. It was amazing how easy it was to forget that discomfort, just by taking the stupid things off for a few minutes. “Anything specific?”

“Just about how they’ll need to be careful their dead homunculi don’t fall into the wrong hands. They were talking about the kill switches, mostly.”

Kill switches were pretty much what they sounded like; self-destruct sequences the fey used for their homunculi, to make sure that the body was completely destroyed, and no one would be able to study the corpse.

“That’s interesting on its own, though,” Alex said slowly. “They’d only be worried about leaving corpses behind if they were staging a war.”

“They stage wars all the time,” I noted. “I don’t think its a big deal.”

But the angel just shook his head. “Their normal turf wars are bad enough, but right now…if a war starts now, a lot of people are going to die.”

“People die every day,” I muttered gruffly. “Besides, we can handle a few monsters.”

Alex leaned forward, between the driver’s seat and the passenger, holding himself up by the shoulder rests. He locked gazes with me and wouldn’t let go.

“How do you think we would have survived the bleeders,” he asked slowly. “If there was a horde of fey-born monsters attacking at the same time?”

I forced myself to avert my eyes. “Wouldn’t happen. The fey don’t plan.”

“Hm,” the angel muttered. “I’m sure they don’t. Kat’s intercepted communication is clearly just an anomaly. The fey couldn’t, for example, be in league with the Composer.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 49)

One of the main reasons for this scene was to show what happens when a vampire tries to see in normal light without daygoggles. The other was a little more characterization for Alex. I really don’t think I’ve given him enough time to shine.

Scene 48 – Gigas

GIGAS

AKANE

With Derek still injured, it fell to me to manage our missions alone. Ling was busy; she had class. But I managed to collect Adam and the retinue, which would be enough to put down one crazy gargant.

Adam was prepared this time, with his full assortment of weapons holstered to his hips and back. He didn’t have any real body armor, which I thought was odd, but then I didn’t have any either, so maybe I shouldn’t talk. It would probably be a better idea to worry about his obviously still injured arm. Was he going to be all right for this?

I had been a little worried the retinue wouldn’t be available, but it turned out they all had that Insomniac buff that came out a few years ago, so they didn’t need to sleep. That went a long way to explaining why they were always fighting fit no matter the hour, at any rate.

“Sorry,” I apologized quietly. I was getting used to them, but I still didn’t talk more than necessary. “Derek needs rest.”

Kelly looked up from checking her pistol, her eyes covered by daygoggles. “No worries. He’s had a rough day.” She turned to her crew. “Everyone ready?”

Everyone nodded, and we headed forward.

We were at a large square-shaped park, nestled in the shadow of three skyscrapers, with the fourth side open to the street. A large concrete wall separated the park abruptly from the street, but there was no gate, just an opening hidden behind a smaller wall. The purpose wasn’t to keep people out, but simply to make sure no one tried to drive a car around the well-kept lawns.

The wall currently had a very large hole in it, maybe ten feet wide, from where the gargant crashed through.

It wasn’t hard to follow. It had left a trail of destruction in its wake, ripping massive scars in the lush green carpet and scattering trees aside like toothpicks. The gardener would probably weep at the sight. Thankfully, the trail was not littered with bodies; the gargant had been rampaging since last night, but it wasn’t specifically hunting down victims or even doing all that much damage to the environment. That was why Derek had been able to delay so long.

For our part, we just followed the concrete path. The park wasn’t so big that we risked losing sight of the trail. In a few moments, even that became moot, since we spotted the creature bathing in the small artificial lake.

Gargants, as the name implies, are giant monsters, ranging from the size of a car to the size of a bus. They are the twisted and mutated result of fey experimentation, and are the monstrous equivalent of tanks—with all the same implications.

Luckily, making such a huge creature is by no means easy, never mind all the extra modifications such as durability and strength. Making such a beast capable of actually breeding new gargants is simply impossible. Each gargant is individually tailored by the fey, thus greatly limiting how fast they can be produced.

This one was on the middle end of the scale, about the size of a pickup truck. It was a four-legged creature, coated in thick, dark brown fur, almost indistinguishable from black. It’s face, however, was completely covered with white bone plating, making it seem as though it’s skull was poking out at us. If I was any judge, that armor would be able to take a rocket without cracking.

It hooted softly in contentment, splashing around the lake without a care in the world. At that, Jarasax looked uncertain.

“Do…do we really have to kill it?” he said quietly. “I mean, what’s the harm in just locking it up?”

“Killed a bus already,” I said. “Bus was full.”

Sax blinked. “But…”

“Ate them.”

He nodded, holding up his hand to keep me from continuing. “Got it, got it. Right, need to kill it.”

“Soon,” I admitted. But first, I held up my phone and carefully took a few pictures of the beast. They were decent quality, though my camera wasn’t good enough to do anything professional. I wouldn’t get paid extra for them, but Obould would appreciate it.

“So what’s this thing called?” Adam asked. “I didn’t see it in that gargant book Derek lent me.”

Jarasax clapped him on the back. “This one’s brand-new. The fey are field testing it. If it does well, they’ll make more. And since they don’t really care about names, that means we get to name it.” He scratched his chin. “Something with ‘skull’ in it, obviously. Hmm…hairy hardskull?”

I snorted in derision. “Works.” I headed forward before anyone could suggest any more stupid names.

They followed, but it didn’t stop them from talking. Kelly was the one who answered the changeling’s suggestion. “I don’t know, traditionally gargants always have ‘gargant’ in there somewhere. How about just hardskull gargant?”

The changeling drummed his fingers on his gun as he contemplated. “Hm, I’m not sure…”

“We can discuss this later,” Adam pointed out. “Right now, we just need to kill the thing.” He pulled out his shotgun with obvious enthusiasm. “I’ve got a god slayer right here. If the anti-armor doesn’t work, that will.” He regained his composure a little. “Akane, if you would do the honors?”

It wasn’t quite an order, but it still smacked of one, and I was tempted to ignore him just to be contrary. But I was planning to draw the gargant’s attention anyway, so refusing wouldn’t solve anything.

I drew my sword and ran forward. When I reached the pond—which was shallow enough to walk in easily enough—the monster looked up, startled by the sound of splashing water. Its beady little eyes, protected under those massive ridges of bone, stared at me with a mild curiosity balanced with indifference.

I activated my speed, ran in front of its head, and stabbed it as far as I could in the eye.

Right as I withdrew my blade, my reservoir ran out, and the gargant bellowed in pain, blasting me in the face with its horrific breath. It reared up on its hind legs, still howling. I quickly fell back, and the others opened up with gunfire. Their bullets mostly bounced off its thick hide; looking closer, I was beginning to think the thing was armored with steel plates bolted to the skin. The ‘hair’ seemed to actually be metal bristles, like on a brush. What were those for?

It wasn’t important. The point was that the beast was armored like a tank, and angry. It finally came back down to all fours, crashing with all its weight behind its hind legs. I was well out of danger by that point, though I did get splashed in the face with a wave of water.

My reservoir was only partly replenished, but it was enough to get me out of the water, back to Adam and the retinue, a little faster.

Adam cursed as he struggled to his feet. It seemed he still wasn’t quite used to the massive recoil of that shotgun. “It seems bulletproof.”

I nodded. “Metal plates.”

George raised an eyebrow. I hadn’t heard him fire yet; the roar of his minigun was distinctive, to say the least. “Then the skull’s the weak point?”

I frowned. That couldn’t be right. The fey were crazy enough, sure, but it would have knocked itself unconscious just trying to break through the wall if that was the case.

No, that wasn’t necessarily true. Just because the skull was the weak point didn’t mean that it was weak.

Kelly was a bit more pragmatic. “I guess we’ll find out. George, let her rip.”

The ogre grinned, revealing his sharp teeth, and lifted the massive minigun. I’ll never know why the named one of the largest portable weapons in existence the minigun.

The thing weighed at least fifty pounds, probably more, but the eight-foot tall giant hefted it with ease. He flipped a switch—presumably the safety—braced himself, and depressed the trigger as the gargant finally discerned our location and charged.

The beast ran straight into a hail of bullets thicker than a rainstorm, heralded by a thunder I can’t properly describe. Think of a marching band, playing their hearts out. Then replace every single instrument with a drum, and remove the rhythm.

Thirty 7.62 millimeter rounds per second tore through the air like screaming banshees…and bounced off the gargant’s skull with a sound like tin roof in a hailstorm. It had about as much effect, too. That is, the gargant was annoyed, but not actually harmed.

Kelly yelled something unprintable. “Scatter!”

Everyone jumped in different directions, under the assumption that such a large creature wouldn’t be able to turn fast enough to catch us. George moved a little bit too slowly, however, and got clipped as the monster ran past. He cried out as he was thrown a few feet, the minigun rolling out of his hands.

And the gargant was coming around for another pass.

“Alex,” I said quickly, indicating the fallen ogre. The angel nodded, and moved to check on his friend. Besides, dayknives were sharp and everything, but they couldn’t cut through whatever the gargant was armored with.

I gestured to Adam, and he nodded, readying another round—hopefully that ‘god slayer’ he had mentioned earlier, whatever that was.

Farther away, from a place where George was not between her and the beast, Kelly started firing at the gargant, attracting its attention. It wasn’t injured, of course, but its tiny brain was annoyed, and it bellowed as it charged forward.

I used that opportunity to slip forward at super speed and stab upwards into the roof of its mouth. I wasn’t able to cut very deep; the depth of my reservoir was increasing every day, but it was still limited, and I just didn’t have the time or the angle to get a good strike in.

As I slipped away, however, I noticed that George’s bullets had chipped away the white on the gargant’s face, revealing steel underneath. It was paint, nothing more, paint over steel shaped to look like bone. No wonder it was bulletproof.

Adam wasn’t quite in position yet, so I danced back to where the monster could see me with it’s remaining eye, hoping it would charge at me instead of the others.

It worked, of course. The beast focused on me as best it could, bellowed loud enough to wake the dead, and rushed forward as fast as its tree-trunk legs would carry it, tearing up the grass beneath its feet.

I was only about ten feet away. The gargant couldn’t build up very much speed, but with its weight that didn’t mean much. Thankfully, I had enough power left in my reservoir to dodge out of the way without too much difficulty. If I didn’t have super speed, I probably would have been killed.

The creature ended up in the water again, and made a long, wide turn, coming back around for another pass, aiming straight for me.

It was only when it started to pick up speed again that I realized I had lost track of myself. I was between George and the monster. If I dodged, it would crush him.

I cursed. If I didn’t dodge, it would crush us both. I dodged out of the way a bit early, in the hope that it would decide to chase after me again.

It didn’t.

Adam, however, had a better plan.

Before the gargant came out of the water, he jumped from the shore onto its side, grasping the metal bristles attached to its plates for purchase. He slowly crawled over to the face, scrambling for a grip on the ridges molded into its skull-armor. He finally managed to get himself on the skull, between the eyes, and while the beast bucked, he held on tightly, holding his shotgun in his right hand.

I was…stunned. This wasn’t the first time I had seen someone pull a stunt like this. I had once seen Derek jump into a gargant’s mouth just so he could throw a grenade down its gullet. But that was with years of practice and training. Adam had been fighting for what? Two weeks? Is this what Butler meant when he called him a ‘natural-born killer?’

The gargant was even more confused than before, and its deadly charge turned into a wild, erratic stampede. It missed George and Alex by a couple feet. They got showered in grass and dirt, but that was better than getting stomped by a ten-ton behemoth.

It took me a minute to realize what Adam was trying to do. At first, I had just thought he was trying to distract the thing from the injured ogre, but it quickly became clear that he was struggling to bring the shotgun around to use it.

Well, he better do it quick. The gargant was coming back around, perhaps thinking the water of the pond could help it shake this mite off somehow.

I rushed forward, starting on its blind side, then leaping into its vision as quickly as I could. As expected, the animal’s primitive brain reacted much the same as the last time I had appeared so suddenly, and it reared up, bellowing a warning.

Adam didn’t waste the chance. With the gargant on its hind legs, he suddenly found it much easier to stay in position, and he let go with his hands, cocked his shotgun, placed it in the beast’s dead right eye and fired.

From the name ‘god slayer,’ I was expecting a pretty big bang. Instead, there was just a loud, dull thump and the wet sound of gore and gristle bursting out of the gargant’s eyes and mouth. The creature fell to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut, not even whimpering as its life fled. It made a pretty big splash as it hit, though. Water, mud, and the red sluice that had recently been the contents of the creature’s skull flew everywhere.

Adam fell to his knees, breathing heavily and clutching the arm he had dislocated early this morning. I ran up to him, but it was hard to tell where he was bleeding, and where he was just covered in gore.

“Idiot,” I muttered. “You’re still not healed from earlier.” We’d need to get a doctor to look at his arm. If he hadn’t dislocated it again, he had probably torn a few tendons. I was a bit surprised when I realized his hands and arms were torn up pretty badly; apparently using those bristles as handholds was a bad idea.

“Lay down,” I instructed, forcing him onto his back. He would be fine, probably. He just needed rest and bandages.

Kelly tossed me some as she jogged up, and I started binding his wounds.

“That was pretty impressive,” she said, nodding in approval. “Stupid, but impressive.”

Adam grunted in pain and didn’t say anything. Hopefully, this little adventure had taught him to be more cautious in the future.

“I wonder if the fey consider this a success,” the vampire muttered, scratching her chin.

“Probably,” Jarasax admitted, walking forward with a limp. “The fey usually call it a success if the monster manages to escape their labs. Anything after that isn’t relevant.”

I frowned. Where had he been?

The changeling seemed to read the look on my face. “I tripped up during the first charge, hit my head. If it had noticed me, I’d be dead.”

I sighed. Well, everyone makes mistakes. Speaking of which, Alex was walking over, leaving George alone on the grass some ten feet away.

“He’s fine,” the angel reported, noticing my gaze. “Bad bruises and some fractures, but he’ll be right as rain soon enough. The gargant could have done worse.”

Kelly kicked the beast a little, as if to make sure it was dead, then snapped her fingers. “Steel-plated gargant! Of course!”

I sighed. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 48)

Akane calls the park “large.” It is not. It’s maybe medium sized, according to any standards from anywhere other than Domina. You can see from one side of the park to the other easily—well, if there aren’t trees in the way. Of course, most parks in the city are located on top of or inside of skyscrapers, so that is indeed quite large, as far as she’s concerned.

Scene 46 – Cruor

CRUOR

ADAM

Derek shook me awake quickly. I had never expected to go to sleep at reasonable hours at college, but when zombies can attack at any moment, you don’t really have the luxury of staying up to late. You get whatever rest you can.

I glanced at the clock. 1 AM. Dammit, it was a Thursday too. I had classes in the morning. Well, I guess I’d have to skip them.

I jumped out of bed quickly, dressing in a small set of tactical armor (basically just black cloth with plastic plates woven in) and grabbing my gun case. I belted everything in their now-familiar positions: Pistol on my right hip, SMG on my left, shotgun over my right shoulder and the rifle over my left.

The others were ready before me, of course. Akane was wearing the new black gi Ling had given her, but she wasn’t wearing Flynn’s earrings. I guess that wasn’t all that surprising, but she had seemed so excited when she first got them. Whatever. I had more important things to worry about.

We collected Laura in the lobby, and met the retinue out front. It seemed as though Necessarius was using Laura’s changeling as an early warning system. Not to mention that they were always outside our dorm in the van.

Kat was conspicuous by her absence, and no one talked much. Usually I ended up striking up a conversation with George, but he was too subdued. He hadn’t been very close with Kat, I knew, but its still hard when someone is just ripped out of your life like that.

I didn’t say anything stupid like ‘She’ll be fine,’ or ‘We’ll find a cure.’ She might be and we might find one, but right now they were just empty platitudes.

Our destination was under a mile away, so at least the silence didn’t stretch for more than a couple minutes. Before it had any real chance to get awkward, we were already there, at the Necessarian redoubt, piling out of the van.

“Where is everyone?” Kelly asked, glancing around. Alex followed, fumbling for her night vision goggles.

Jarasax frowned. “I don’t know. MC said they were here. Something’s not right.”

I agreed. Even disregarding MC, there was obviously a redoubt here, built within the last five minutes or so. It wasn’t anything fancy, just a bunch of upended tables arranged outward, in the hopes it would keep the screamers out, but that isn’t something that people just leave in the middle of the street.

But there was no one around. No ‘sarians, no civilians, and no screamers. I couldn’t even hear them.

I nudged Derek. “Where are they? Can you tell?”

“Up ahead,” he muttered, and listening closely I could hear a dull drone coming from that direction. “I have a bad feeling. It’s a big group.” He gestured Akane and Ling forward, and they headed off at a fast pace, with only the slightest hesitation on Ling’s part. In the darkness, they fell out of sight very quickly.

“Let’s get up in the buildings,” Kelly advised. “Travel by rooftop.” Domina’s structures were so close together that it was actually a viable option to jump from roof to roof. Hell, half the time there were ziplines already set up for the bigger gaps.

We went for the structure to the left, a vertical mall of stores, leaving Derek on the ground with Akane and Ling. We actually had to pick the lock—oddly, none of the windows were broken, and Kelly didn’t want to risk any screamers hearing us. It only took a moment; Alex’s skills were supreme.

The ground floor was just clothing, mostly winter stuff, and the second floor was their storeroom. We could have used the customer elevator, but no one felt comfortable with that, so we used the stairs in the back, peeking at each floor in case there was anything useful.

There wasn’t. There were a few electronics stores, but most were more clothing. Every other floor was another storeroom, and we did see some useful things in those, but nothing really worth mentioning.

It was a twenty-story building, but we finally managed to come out on the roof. My legs were sore, but not aching. Weeks of running and fighting for your life toughens you up pretty fast.

We made good progress over the rooftops. As expected, there were various planks, ziplines, and ladders that made the whole thing easier. Laura had a bit of trouble on some of the more difficult jumps, but the power package improved agility enough so that we didn’t have to worry about her too much.

Eventually we reached the last building, overlooking the square where the screamers were. It was about thirty stories, so with the darkness it was hard to tell what was going on below, but I could see a massive crowd writhing below. Their screams wafted up slowly, that same emotionless sound we had all come to dread.

Laura glanced down, then stepped back from the edge and pulled out her phone. The rooftop was relatively uncluttered, just a couple air conditioning units and a short wall to keep maintenance men from falling. She leaned against one of the boxy metal units, more tired than the rest of us.

“Derek, what’s it look like down there?”

The rest of us could hear heavy breathing; she had her phone on speaker. After a moment, Derek spoke.

“Not good. There are maybe a thousand screamers here. I haven’t seen them use their powers, but I think they already infected everyone in the area. I can’t see any survivors.”

“What about the ‘sarians?” I asked. I noted out of the corner of my eye that Kelly was looking down on the crowd with a pair of binoculars; with her nighteyes, she’d be able to see more.

“I see a few,” he replied quickly. “All infected. They’re kinda just…milling around. They aren’t as destructive as most of the other screamers. I don’t know why.”

“Probably because there’s no one for them to fight,” Laura mused. “Do you see any singers? If the Composer was smart, that might be why they all got infected so fast.”

“No, no, I don’t see any.”

“One second, Derek.” I turned to Kelly. “How about you?”

She lowered the binoculars and scratched the device on her left arm, shaking her head. “No, me neither.” She frowned. “I don’t like this. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“We need to know their power,” Jarasax pointed out. “But the second those three strike, the zombies are gonna be on them like maggots on a corpse. They can’t hold them all off.”

“If their power is geared completely towards infection, we should be fine,” Ling pointed out from over the phone.

Alex shook her head. “Not something we want to test. That’s still a lot of zombies.”

George shifted the weight of his minigun, frowning. “Hey…if they’re not attacking at all…” he trailed off.

“Yes?” I prompted. He might not be the smartest in the retinue, but he knew it, and kept his mouth shut unless he actually had a good idea.

He shook his head. “I’m just wondering—if they’re all infected, and they’re not attacking, that means that there are no civilians left to get hurt, and no one to shoot down a chopper.”

Laura brightened. “Of course. Have Necessarius airdrop some knockout gas. That’ll do the trick.”

I threw up my hands. “Why didn’t we do that before? Not all of them had ranged attacks.”

She shrugged. “Most did, but more importantly, screamers have a higher resistance to that sort of thing than civilians. It takes longer for it to take effect, and it won’t last as long. The civvies would get torn to shreds in the meantime.”

I snorted. “Seems like an acceptable price to pay, considering the losses we’ve been taking.”

“There is a difference between failing to protect civilians and signing their death warrant yourself,” Derek insisted from the phone. “This was never an option until now.”

“Besides,” Laura put in. “The biters were the only ones without a ranged attack. They sent a helicopter near the burners, and it got shot down.” She scratched her chin. “Of course, we’ll need backup. The gas will only work for about an hour. MC? You listening?”

The woman’s cheerful voice chimed in. “Yes, I am. You said there were about a thousand, all confined to the one square?”

I blinked. We hadn’t said that. But it was true regardless, so Laura confirmed it. “Yes.”

“Good. I’ll have a chopper and a company of peacekeepers down there shortly. You might want to figure out the screamers’ power first, though. Don’t want them walking into it completely blind.”

“Agreed,” Laura replied tersely. “But we’ll still need to wait for reinforcements. Derek, you on board?”

“Yeah, of course. Just give us a minute to get in position.”

It was a small thing, but those are always the ones that give you pause. Kelly had started looking down on the horde again, and she spoke. She didn’t say ‘crap,’ or ‘uh-oh’ or any of a thousand other things that would have immediately clued us in on the danger.

She just said “Huh,” in a curious tone of voice. Like she had seen something unexpected and unimportant.

That got my attention pretty quickly, though I’m still not sure why, and I walked to her side with a frown.

“What’s up?”

She shook her head, not putting down the binoculars. “I’m not sure. It’s…interesting, but I don’t quite know what to make of it.”

I frowned. “Out with it.”

She shrugged sheepishly. “Well…the screamers are bleeding.”

I blinked.

“It took me a while to notice. At first I thought they were just covered in blood from their victims. But every single one I’ve seen has been bleeding, usually from the hand. It’s curious.”

I flipped out my phone and speed-dialed Derek. He picked up quickly.

“Their power has something to do with blood,” I told him. “Hell if I know what, but Kelly noticed that they’re all bleeding. Be careful down there.”

“We will,” he promised, and hung up.

Somehow, I wasn’t reassured.

I walked back to the others, specifically Laura. “We think their ability is blood-based. What’s your research say about that?” Laura and Doctor Clarke—mostly Clarke—had been studying the powers as much as possible. She had explained that progress was frustratingly slow, since the screamers wouldn’t cooperate (obviously), and the sane people with powers were too busy to help.

She shook her head. “It’s hard to say. We’ve identified a few interesting things, but nothing that will really help here.”

I leaned against the air conditioner. It’s not like I had anything else to do. “What kind of interesting things?”

She warmed to the subject. This was probably a perfect time to ask. Keep her mind of Kat’s absence, and more specifically her inability to fix it.

“Well, it seems powers are both more and less specific than you’d think. Take Ling’s power, for instance. What would you call it?”

I shrugged. “The power to control earth?”

She grinned. “Yes, but its more than that. You see, she’s actually telekinetic.”

“Meaning…she can move objects with her mind.”

“Yes, exactly. That’s her power. But it seems like everyone—or the kineticists, anyway, since they’re our largest sample group—have a talent as well.”

“Ling’s is to move earth,” I said slowly.

“And the burners’ is to move fire,” she finished excitedly. “We don’t have any conclusive list of powers yet, of course, but it seems like the first one we encountered was actually a pyrogenic, rather than a kineticist. She could create it, but not control it.”

Jarasax put his phone away. I hadn’t even noticed him pull it out. “Alpha Company is here, and is advancing on the southern flank.”

“Good,” Laura said with a nod, jumping back on track. “Tell them to lay down some suppressive fire, get the screamers’ attention, while Derek’s team does recon.” Jarasax nodded and pulled out his phone again to relay the orders.

Something didn’t feel right.

“This is Alpha leader,” his phone chirped. He apparently had thought to put it on speaker. “All platoons are moving forward now.”

I was missing something important.

“We are in visual range of the enemy. Advancing. They don’t seem to have spotted us.”

Something about what Laura had said…

“Engaging now.” There was a brief pause. “They seem to be returning fire…”

That was finally enough for my subconscious to decide it had enough information, and explain the situation to my conscious mind.

I grabbed Jarasax’s phone frantically. “Alpha leader, fall back now! I repeat, fall back now!”

Sax tried to grab his phone back. “What the hell, Adam?” The rest of the retinue were staring at me too, though George was moving towards the edge with his minigun. He was confused, but he had learned to trust his instincts.

“Negative, sir,” Alpha leader responded. “Enemy fire is minimal. We can handle it.”

“It’s not fire! It’s blood! That’s how they infected everyone! They’re shooting infected blood!”

The only response from his end was screaming. A tuneless, emotionless scream of pure noise. Then the line went dead, probably as a zombie stepped on the radio.

I cursed and tossed the phone back to Jarasax. “They’re lost,” I said tiredly, brushing my hair back from my sweat-stained forehead. “Derek, you hear all that?”

“Yes, and we can still save them—”

There were sounds of a scuffle from his end of the line.

Laura immediately jumped up, her hand on her necklace. “Derek, respond. What’s wrong?”

Ling’s voice replied instead. “He’s trying to run into a horde of zombies. Akane’s trying to stop him. One sec.”

I cursed. “Derek, Alpha Company is gone. We’ll collect them when we gas the rest of the screamers.”

There was muffled cursing from the line, then I heard his voice in the background. “No…I…get off me—”

“Derek is out cold,” Ling reported after a moment. “We have to run. There’s no way we can fight while protecting him.”

Laura muttered something unprintable. “Fine. We’ll take it from here.” She hung up the phone and looked at the rest of us, a determined expression on her face. “We’re going to have to be careful. One drop and you’ll turn. But we should be safe up here.”

“Wait,” George said. “I’m still confused. What’s their power?”

“Something to do with blood,” I replied. “Either controlling it or creating it and shooting it like a squirt gun, it doesn’t matter.”

“Probably the former,” Laura mused. “If it was the latter, it might not be infectious.”

I waved my hand. “Whatever. When’s that chopper getting here?”

She wiggled her hand from side-to-side. “Eh, twenty minutes. We can just wait. It’s dark, and the helicopter is remote-piloted. They won’t sense any blood on it, and probably wouldn’t be able to reach it if they did.”

I frowned. “Wait, back up. What do you mean ‘sense any blood?’”

“Oh, didn’t I mention that?” She shrugged. “Yeah, from some of the things Loga and Ling said, its become clear that kineticists can sense things they can control. That’s why using a helicopter against the burners was right out; they could sense the heat of the engine, and make it explode. Well, they did do it.”

I stared at her. “So these bleeders can sense us?”

Her mouth gaped in surprise for a moment, but then she blinked, and smiled again. “Yes, of course, but they would have already attacked if they were going to.”

George readied his minigun. “Didn’t you say something about the screamers having both ‘aggressive’ and ‘defensive’ types?”

Laura nodded. “Correct. And these are clearly defensive.”

“But they can switch, right?”

“Yes. Only from defensive to aggressive, but yes.”

“Would an entire company of peacekeepers be enough to make that switch?”

Kelly, still looking down the side of the building, was the one who answered. “Apparently so. Or maybe they just want to say hi.” She stepped back from the edge and readied her pistol, a Necessarian model I couldn’t identify. “Either way, they’re coming.”

I looked around the roof and found a few tall air conditioning units arranged in a square, with only one space open so mechanics could get in for maintenance. I pointed to it. “That should help us hold them off. Force them to bottleneck themselves.”

“Unless they climb,” Alex noted.

I grinned, trying to look more confident than I felt. “Aggressive ones are stupider, remember? C’mon.”

It was a tight fit for all six of us, but we managed to get George’s minigun pointed at the opening, which was pretty much all we needed. We waited anxiously for a few minutes, not even sure if they were coming.

Then I heard the screaming.

Quiet at first, but it built swiftly, that emotionless cry coming from every direction at once, as the zombies got closer and closer.

“Remember,” Laura said. “Try not to kill them if possible.”

I shook my head as I pulled out my Sica. Anything bigger than a pistol would just cause problems in this enclosed space. “No way. We’re going to have enough problems if we’re willing to kill.”

“Plus, they can control their blood,” Kelly pointed out.

Alex nodded. “Exactly. If they’re wounded but alive, they might be more of a danger than if they were uninjured. Killing is the only option.”

Laura swore under her breath. “Fine. But when the helicopter drops the sleeping gas, we’re capturing as many as possible.”

“Hopefully they send another company, too,” I muttered. MC hadn’t said anything, but Necessarius wasn’t stupid enough to think nine people—eight, with Derek unconscious—could tie up a thousand people in an hour. They probably had troops on the way.

Probably.

The first screamer poked his head into our makeshift fort, and Sax blew his head off before anyone could move. George had his minigun ready, but he was saving it for large groups, like always.

Two more came; I got the girl on the left in the head, and someone else got the man on the right with a double-tap to the chest. A half-dozen more tried to get through at once, tripping over each other in the process, and George tore them apart with the minigun. The roar nearly deafened me, but it was temporary.

We were doing well, but we couldn’t keep this up for long. And without Derek’s shields, if they got a chance to use their abilities, we were pretty much dead.

Another one jumped over the corpses of his comrades. I shot him in the leg, and as he stumbled, Kelly got him in the head. More came, more died. It got tedious very quickly. Luckily, the screamers didn’t seem to know what to do with their ability in an enclosed space, so we didn’t have any real trouble.

To my surprise, though, the flow of zombies stopped after only about a dozen more tried to force their way through the gap. We stood there for a few minutes waiting for more, but none came, and the screaming had faded again.

“That can’t be all of them,” I muttered.

Laura took out her phone. “Ling? You guys all right? The screamers stopped attacking us up here.”

The little blonde delinquent sounded exasperated. “Yeah, probably because we’ve got the entire horde behind us. Can’t talk. Bye.” She hung up before we could say anything else.

I cursed. “We need the screamers in one place. How big an area can the gas hit?”

Laura held up her hands, signaling that she had no idea, but luckily someone did.

“The bombs can be spread as far as a full square mile,” Alex explained. “Though with screamers, I’m not sure the gas would be dense enough at that point to affect them.” She chewed her lip and adjusted the night vision goggles on her face. “As long as they stay on one street or intersection, it should be fine.”

“Okay, I’ll tell Akane,” Laura promised, typing out a text. That was a good idea; with her speed, Akane could read it even in the middle of combat if she really had to. “We should also keep them out of the buildings, so that they can’t avoid the gas.”

I paused before answering, thinking of the full implications of that statement. “So that means it would be best if we were down on ground level.”

“Yes.”

“Among the screamers.”

“Uh…”

“Who can infect us very, very easily.”

Laura touched her necklace. “Well…yes, unfortunately. We don’t have much of a choice.”

“There’s a sloped ‘scraper nearby,” Kelly said, pointing out into the darkness. The moon was still a little more than half full, so I could indeed see a large skyscraper with one of the faces (the one in our direction) sloping upwards at a steep incline, forming a very large and dangerous slide.

I scratched my chin. “I see your point. If we’re up there, the bleeders will come up the slope at an angle we can shoot them.”

“They’ll die from the fall,” Laura argued, apparently already assuming that we wouldn’t be going for kill shots.

“Probably,” I admitted. “But maybe not. They’re hardy, you said so yourself.”

She frowned. “Not that hardy.”

Alex sighed. “Look Laura, this plan gives not just us a better chance to survive, but the screamers as well. I know…I know we all want a cure,” it was the first time anyone had actually come close to speaking about Kat. “And we might even find one. But right now we have to worry about ourselves.”

Laura looked at the rest of us, and nodded once.

“Good,” Kelly said decisively, putting away her binoculars. “Let’s go. We need to find a way to cross that intersection full of screamers.”

I peered across. “The building right across from us is lower. We might be able to rig up a zipline or something.”

Laura buried her face in her hands. “Not again.” She looked up. “Derek and I did that with the burners. It wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t quick.”

I cocked my head. “A zipline wasn’t quick?”

She waved her hand. “He made a rope, and we headed across hand over hand. If we can find an actual zipline, then I’m all for it, but I don’t think we’ll have much luck.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Alex interjected with a grin. “There’s a hiking store just three floors down. I’m sure they have something we could use.”

Turns out she was right, and I managed to come back within ten minutes with a zipline and a spike to attach it to. The spike then went in my shotgun, to be shot across the urban gorge. The box said the spike was designed to work with the Saint George specifically, but I was still a bit leery. One of the first things I learned about guns was that sticking things down the barrel and expecting them to work right was asking for trouble.

Turns out I was overreacting. I shot it across without any trouble, and it buried itself in the roof of the target building. We tied it off on our side, tested the weight, and got out the zipline handles we had with us. Again, these things are pretty common in Domina, so carrying the handles is just the result of being even slightly prepared.

“I’ll go first,” George said, lumbering up. As a giant, he probably outweighed the rest of us by a hundred pounds, so if the line could hold him, it could hold anyone.

Before he went, he locked his minigun’s safety and clipped it to the line, then let go. It zipped across quickly and smoothly, before we heard it thump into place on the other roof. The first time I had seen him do that, I had been worried, but apparently the GE XM134 was a sturdy model.

“Seems good,” he grunted. He prepared the handle, took a deep breath, and leaped into the void.

The air conditioner we had attached our end of the line to groaned dangerously, but it held for the thirty seconds or so the ogre was weighing it down. He reached the other side, rolled once, then stood and gave us a thumbs-up.

The rest of us followed without any difficulty. Kelly went last, mostly because despite the clear moonlight, she still had the best nightvision, and would be able to spot anything sneaking up on her. In the end it didn’t matter of course, and she made it across safely.

Laura’s phone rang shortly before Kelly started across, five simple beeps—MC’s ring tone. She picked it up swiftly. “What’s wrong?” She paused, listening. I guess she had taken it off speaker at some point. “Okay, we’ll let you know when we have them in position. Drop some gas masks for us, too.” She hung up.

“That was MC,” she said somewhat unnecessarily. “The helicopter will be here in a couple minutes, but Akane says the screamers are too far out of position. So we need to lure them back. And…” there was a thump from the center of the roof, and I saw that a duffel bag had apparently fallen from the sky. “I guess they’re here. Well, those are gas masks, so we don’t get knocked out with the screamers.”

“Did she say anything about more troops?” I asked as I grabbed one of the masks. I didn’t put it on yet, though, just clipped it to my belt.

“Yeah, they’re with the prison trucks, about a mile out. They’ll come in once the place is gassed.”

Well, that was a better plan than last time. “We still need to get to that other building,” I pointed out, indicating the sloped structure next door. It was only about twenty feet away, but it was also a sheer wall with no windows or balconies. I couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be for.

“That won’t be a problem at all,” Kelly cut in. “Just get inside and take the elevator to the top.”

I stared at her. “Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

She shrugged.

Well, we didn’t have a better option, or any real reason not to take this one, so we quickly rappelled down to the street below. A few screamers spotted us, but I killed them quickly with my Caedes.

“That will draw there attention,” I cursed. “Alex, how are you coming on the door?”

When I looked over, the wide metal service doors were already open, my companions piling through, and the angel was grinning at me.

“No need to show off,” I muttered under my breath. She just laughed and followed me inside.

We barred the doors behind us, of course, and made sure to block the stairs leading up as well. The last thing we needed was screamers attacking our backs.

We had to take the freight elevator up due to our combined weight, but otherwise the sixty floor ride was uneventful. We took the time to call Akane and Ling again, to get a status update and make sure they didn’t think something was wrong. They had managed to throw off pursuit, which was perfect. The screamers were still scattered, but they’d come running soon enough.

The roof was completely bare, except for a trapdoor to the stairs. It was really disconcerting; with the slope, we only had about ten feet of roof in that direction, and I didn’t have any illusions that I’d somehow be able to catch myself if I fell.

I shrugged. Nothing else to do but play out the plan.

“You ready, Alex?”

She nodded and put her gloves on, the ones with the magnifying glasses in the palms. A moment later she took off her night vision goggles. She was completely nightblind without them, but that wouldn’t be an issue long. “Ready.”

We all lined up on the edge, weapons out. I had chosen my Athena; I hadn’t really had much chance to use it outside the shooting range, so this was going to be a good opportunity for me. Jarasax and George would handle the bulk of the horde, while Kelly and Laura shot anything that got past them.

“All right,” Laura said slowly. “Everyone else ready?”

We all chimed off, one by one.

She nodded. “Good. Alex, light the beacon.”

The angel stepped forward, held out her hands, and activated the patches of dayskin on her palms. Twin beams of light, too bright to look at, shone out like spotlights. After a moment, she managed to center them on our van, where a large number of the bleeders had clustered, and then slowly began to walk the beams towards us.

It worked perfectly, the zombies following the unexpected patch of daylight like a cat following a laser pointer.

“They’re almost in position,” she said calmly. “We might not even need to fight; just drop the gas on them straight.”

Of course, she spoke too soon.

While the bulk of the horde was still clustered around the end of the beam, others were already scaling the slope of our redoubt like rats, trying to get to the source of the light.

They climbed fast, despite the steep incline, and they were about half way up before I even knew what was going on. But, I was ready, so I sighted through my scope and targeted one of the screamers. Laura wanted us to shoot them in the legs, in the hopes that they’d survive to be cured later. But…

But they were too dangerous.

I adjusted my aim slightly and shot the first one dead center, in the chest. Her scream changed briefly to a screech of pain, and she fell backwards, tumbling like a rag doll back down the slope and to the street below, still covered in a writhing carpet of zombies.

Laura noticed immediately. “Adam, what the hell—”

“Talk later,” I barked out. I got another screamer in the chest, which managed to trip up another behind it as it fell. Behind me, Laura cursed, but started shooting as well.

“Get your masks ready,” Alex said, as I shot another screamer. “They’re dropping the gas shortly.”

I put my mask on quickly, as did everyone but the angel (she couldn’t spare a hand). But I had a thought. Luckily, the masks had a simple speaker so I could still talk. “Wait, if they’re dropping it down there, why do we even need masks?”

“The gas they’re using is heavier than air,” Laura explained, her voice tinny and mechanical. “They’ll spray it from high up, and it will float down to cover everything.” She shrugged. “We’re probably still safe, but best to be sure.”

I still couldn’t see the chopper anywhere. There weren’t very many clouds, but I was a little bit busy to be looking around the sky for anything. I just kept shooting, felling screamer after screamer. It was only when I stopped to reload that I noticed a fine mist, dappled with moonlight, falling from the sky.

The gas really looked quite beautiful, like a silver blanket slowly covering the streets below us. Alex’s beams looked even more like searchlights than before, shining into the fog and highlighting it, rather than cutting through it.

Then the lights flickered and died, and I remembered that she wasn’t wearing a gas mask.

Before anyone could do anything, the angel tumbled forward unconscious, rolling down the steep slope to a horrible death sixty floors below.

I cursed and holstered my Athena. I didn’t have any choice.

I jumped after her.

Of course, I went feet first, sliding on my rear, so I had a great deal more control over my descent than my freefalling comrade. I managed to increase my speed enough so that I caught up with Alex, and I grabbed her arm, pulling her close, using my body like one of those emergency sleds they have at ski resorts.

Except without seat belts.

Or brakes.

And, you know, we were both going to die.

While I clutched the unconscious angel to my chest with my left hand, I used my right to get the large combat knife off my hip, and stabbed it into the slope of the building.

The walls of the structure—including the crazy ramp we were on now—were made of relatively weak materials like plaster, rather than concrete or even sheetrock. This unquestionably saved our lives, at least for a moment. If it was anything else, I probably wouldn’t have even been able to stab the knife in.

But luck was with me, and I did manage to create a crude brake. My arm was quickly wrenched behind me at an angle it was not supposed to go, and I felt a long, sharp pain, which probably came from a dislocated shoulder. I screamed in agony, and the knife began to cut a long line through the slope. The same weak materials that allowed me to stab the blade in in the first place also kept me from creating a functional anchor.

Eventually, perhaps a dozen feet from the end of the slope, the knife caught on something unyielding, and we stopped with another jolt. I felt like my arm was going to pop off, and I cried out again. I was having trouble breathing with the mask on, but I didn’t dare remove it; the sleeping gas was so thick at this level that I could barely see in front of my face.

I could see over the edge where the slope ended. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet up with the street. There was a long, sheer drop of five or ten floors between me and the ground. The screamers could scale it easily, and I might have even been able to manage it in better circumstances, but I couldn’t do it with a dislocated shoulder and an unconscious angel.

But now that I had a chance to pay attention, I listened closely (mostly in an attempt to keep my mind off the sharp, agonizing grinding sensation at my shoulder) and realized that I couldn’t hear any screamers any more.

“Adam! Respond! You all right?”

It was Kelly’s voice, coming from inside my mask. I guess MC had suborned the radio or something. A lot of Domina tech was designed to let her take over in an emergency.

“Uh—ow—yeah, mostly.” Talking hurt. Well, everything hurt. “I’m stuck about a hundred feet from the ground. Alex is still with me.” Mostly because my arm had tightened like a vise as I fell. I think I may have broken some of her ribs. “I’m not sure how long I can stay here. Can MC send the chopper?”

“No can do,” she cut in. “It’s a ‘bot. Full auto, no place for passengers. But there are kemos in the ‘sarian group that’s cleaning up the bleeders. Hang tight, a couple will climb up to you in a minute.”

“Okay, I can hang on for a little while longer. But make it quick.” I had a thought. “And tell the cleaners to be careful. The screamers should be bleeding, and I don’t think they have to be conscious to be infectious.”

“Don’t worry,” she chided me. “They know, and they’ve got full body gloves on. Just save up your strength. You’re done for today.”

Behind the Scene (scene 46)

For the record, Adam now knows that Alex is asexual. The others explained the whole thing to him. But when he looks at Alex, he sees a woman, so he continues to think of ‘her’ using feminine pronouns. It doesn’t really matter, just pointing it out.

Oh, and about the bleeders: They are, as Laura assumed, kineticists—aimakineticists, to be exact. What she didn’t know is that aimagenists are so incredibly rare to be nonexistent (though aimakineticists aren’t exactly common either). Since human beings have a natural ability to generate blood, if someone is receiving their powers in the normal way, it is literally impossible for them to manifest that talent. However, if a genist were to spend a few days meditating in an attempt to gain that talent on purpose, they could manifest it. But most people don’t do that. Who the hell wants to be able to make blood? It wouldn’t be able to infect anyone, and it wouldn’t be useful for blood transfusions either.

Scene 37 – Luctus

LUCTUS

KELLY

“She’s not dead,” Jarasax reminded me sullenly.

I didn’t stop passing out the drinks. “Yes she is. The fact that her body is still running around is irrelevant.”

George accepted his mug with a nod. “The boss is right and you know it. We have to accept that she’s gone and move on. Nothing else for it.”

Alex held up his glass. “To Katherine. Best sniper I ever met. First to fall to the screamers.”

“To Kat,” everyone muttered, as we clinked our glasses together and drank.

You get used to death pretty quick in Domina. I was actually the fourth child my parents had, but all three of my brothers had died by the time I reached grade school. It only gets worse if you decide to join a subculture or Necessarius; Kat was hardly the first friend I had lost since deciding to follow Butler.

“Kelly?” Sax said gently. “You all right there?”

I shook my head to clear out the cobwebs. “Yeah, I’m just…did Kat have any family?”

“No,” Alex answered as he sipped his drink. “Orphan, and her matron is dead. Her file said she was always a loner, so I doubt we’re going to have anyone calling to reclaim her things.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Yeah…that sounds about right.” Sounded like pretty much every ‘sarian I had ever spoken to, actually. “She have an apartment or something?”

“Something like that,” the massive giant who was guarding the door three feet from our table grunted. A Thor, if the hammer tattooed on his bicep was any indicator. When we all just stared at him, he shrugged. “You’re talking about Kat Lisbon, the fel anthro, right? She had a room upstairs.”

I glanced sideways at Alex. “Is that why you picked this bar?”

He grinned as he took another sip, but didn’t say anything.

I sighed and turned back to the bouncer. “Could you take us there? She was involved in some sensitive things, and we need to make sure nothing, you know…gets out.” With our luck, she’d have a journal explaining in full detail everything she had done for Necessarius ever since she joined, and some smug Satanist or Nessian would find it.

He shrugged. “Sure. It’s a bit slow right now.” He turned to the bartender. “I’ll be right back.”

The pale-skinned giant led us upstairs without another word, and we had to scramble to catch up. He obviously wasn’t the type to wait around, but some warning would have been nice.

“Watch your step,” he muttered as we exited on the third floor. “There was a spill here earlier.” He gave the yellow ‘wet floor’ sign a wide berth, which the rest of us mimicked.

“Oh, yeah, sorry about that,” a sweet female voice called from down the corridor. “Dropped some raspberry juice.”

I turned to see Elizabeth Greene striding forward, her golden eyes nearly glowing in the dark, and her smile wide and guileless.

We hadn’t officially met, but we had glanced through her file when we found out she was a known associate of the Paladins. There wasn’t much information; she was a voice actress, and she had lots of friends. That was about it. No one really cared enough to write more.

“Miss Greene,” I said politely. “Hello there. I didn’t realize you would be here.”

She quirked her head. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

I held out my hand to shake. “My mistake. I’m a friend of Derek’s. He speaks quite highly of you, and he has a few pictures. I’m Kelly.”

The girl shook my hand with a surprisingly firm grip. “Well, Miss Kelly, don’t let me stop you from…” she waved her free hand. “Whatever it is you’re doing.” She turned to the giant escorting us. “Hammie, getur þú sagt mér hvenær Nabassu fær hér? Hann þarf að hjálpa mér við eitthvað.”

“Auðvitað, Lizzy,” he responded smoothly. “Ég hringi í þig.”

The bronze-skinned girl grinned. “Takk.” She released my hand and headed downstairs. “See you all later.”

Once she was gone, George shook his head. “That girl is too trusting for her own good.”

Our escort raised an eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

The ogre barked out a laugh. “Well, she trusts you, for one.”

I ignored the giants. I’m sure there was some amusing story about how the two met, nearly killed each other, and became friends, but I was hardly in the mood for it. I just wanted to get this over with.

“This it?” I asked when I found the door that looked right. It had a two-dimensional kitten face carved from wood nailed under the peephole, so I figured it was a pretty good guess.

The bouncer nodded. “Yeah. Just give me a second.” He fumbled with a massive keychain at his belt, and eventually selected one labeled ‘303.’ It fit the keyhole easily, and the door swung open with the soft grind of mostly-oiled hinges.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but Kat’s room turned out to be as Spartan as her sniper reputation would suggest. The room itself was pretty small, maybe ten by ten feet, including the big walled-off chunk to the right, behind a door which presumably hid the bathroom. In fact, the room seemed a bit bigger than most hotel rooms, likely because Kat had removed the bed and replaced it with a small bedroll in the corner, next to the sliding glass door to the balcony.

I brushed my hair back. “Alex, it’s your show.”

“Right,” the tracker said with some glee, clapping his hands together. “Normally, I’d put George to work on the beds, but we don’t seem to have to worry about that.” He pointed to a heavy-looking dresser, maybe four feet tall. It was probably where the TV usually went, but there wasn’t one. “Go through that, see what you find. Ignore the clothes. Sax, check the balcony and the bed area. Kelly, I think you and I should be in charge of the bathroom. We—”

“Alex,” Jarasax said warningly. “This isn’t a smash and grab, or a search. Just…take it slow.”

The angel held up his hands. “Sorry. Just…forgot for a second there. Be careful, everyone.”

I sighed and walked into the bathroom. It was only slightly more luxurious than the rest of the place, probably because Kat hadn’t figured out how to remove the small bathtub in the corner. But other than a single extra-large bottle of shampoo, there was nothing. No perfumes or bath salts or scented candles.

I really should have expected as much.

“Hey guys,” George called from the other room. “Take a look at this.”

I strode out of the bathroom, pushing past our escort still guarding the door to the apartment, to find that our ogre had flipped the dresser bottoms-up.

I sighed. “George, didn’t you hear Sax? Don’t treat this as a raid.”

“I’m not. But there’s writing and stuff too, and this was the easiest way to read it.”

I rubbed my forehead and stepped forward to take a closer look. He was right; there was some sort of strange writing in an alphabet I didn’t recognize carved directly into the thin wood making the bottom of the dresser.

“I found something too,” the changeling reported, holding up a small white letter envelope. “Under the cot.” I plucked it out of his hand and opened it.

It had a small single-use flash drive inside, the kind used to store viruses. Well, they had originally been designed to help protect copyright, letting customers download the data once before burning out, but it had taken all of thirty seconds for hackers to find a better use for it.

I held it up, frowning. It was unlabeled. “Sax, did Kat have anything to do with hacking? Better yet, did you give this to her?”

“No on both counts,” he confirmed. “She was on friendly terms with a few other Blood-Doused Hunters, but I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning her needing help with hacking.” He scratched his chin. “She did ask someone to fix her tablet one time, though.”

“Who helped her? Maybe they know what this is.”

“Nemeni, I think.”

Our escort choked. “Nemini? As in the warlord of the Blood-Doused Hunters?”

Jarasax ground his teeth. “We are not a culture, Thor. We don’t have warlords. Dame Nemini is our leader, but—”

The giant waved his hand. “Yes, yes, no one cares. What was the Paragon of the clan doing with a low-ranking traitor’s friend?”

Said low-ranking traitor spoke up. “Unlike the cultures, changelings are not kicked out if we join Necessarius. Nemini is actually very supportive—”

“Wait,” I said. “Paragon. What’s that?”

The Thor blinked. “Oh, sorry, I assumed you knew. It’s a new meme going around. The title for baseline warlords. Pretty much just Butler and the changelings, but I guess whoever is in charge of the Paladins would get called that too.” He scratched his chin. “Speaking of, ‘Honored Paladin’ is catching on for baselines in general.”

“Can we focus here?” George asked in exasperation, as if he hadn’t been the one to cause the derail. “I still don’t understand what’s written here.”

“The big guy is right,” Alex proclaimed, slapping the ogre on the back. “The burn drive is probably just a virus she bought for an emergency. Jarasax can ask Dame Nemini if anyone really cares.” He leaned forward, squeezing his head between me and George to get a better look at the bottom of the dresser. “What’s really interesting is all this.”

Jarasax looked at it a little sideways. “It’s Gaelic. I think.”

I nodded. “That makes sense.”

He chuckled. “Not really. No one uses it. Haven’t for…” he whistled. “Centuries, probably. Now, they just use a modified Latin alphabet just like everyone else.”

I brushed my hand through my hair. “Of course. So you can’t read it?”

“Well…” he leaned forward. “I can make out bits and pieces. But my Irish isn’t that good in the first place, and add in the Gaelic on top, it may as well be chickenscratch.” He straightened up and shook his head. “Gonna need a real translator for this.”

“Well, that’s easy enough,” our escort said from the door. I turned to see him grinning. “Lizzy!” he called. “Þú getur komið í núna.”

Next to the giant, the bronze-skinned Amazon looked like a skinny child. She glared at the bouncer. “Hvernig vissirðu að ég var þarna?”

“You breath loudly,” he explained, probably using English for the benefit of the rest of us. “So you hear everything?”

She brushed her hair back and managed to smile. “Of course. I’d be more than happy to help.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You can read Gaelic?”

“It’s not really that difficult,” she admonished. “The alphabet is mostly the same, just different shapes.”

Alex moved aside to let her in, and I did the same. “That can be said of every language, Miss Greene.”

She grinned at the angel. “And now you know why I’m so good with them.”

I adjusted my daygoggles. “Just…tell us what it says.”

“Well…” she leaned in to take a closer look. Then she frowned. “That’s interesting. It’s a poem.”

This was getting weird. “Why would she carve a Gaelic poem into the bottom of her dresser?”

But the brown-haired girl shook her head. “No, no…it’s a poem in English. Properly translated, it rhymes in a simple A-B-A-B sequence.” She tapped one of the words. “There are a few lines that don’t rhyme, but I can’t tell if that’s because she chose some weird translation, or if it was intentional.”

“It’s a code, then,” George noted.

Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Obviously. Probably for me or Kelly. What’s it say?”

Lizzy shrugged. “It starts with ‘Steel and snow—’”

“Stop,” I said suddenly. The solution had just come to me. “Stop. The poem is a red herring. It’s not important.”

Our translator raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know, this is a lot of effort to confuse whoever is trying to read this. Who would care?”

I waved my hand. “It doesn’t matter. The point is what Sax said—It’s for us, and we don’t speak Irish.” I tapped the very first word, in the top left corner. “What is this? In Irish, I mean?”

“Cruach,” she responded instantly. “Steel.”

“Okay, okay…spelled C-R, I assume? Good.” I pulled out my reading tablet, a cheap little thing only slightly bigger than my cell phone, and plugged Kat’s burn drive into it. As I expected, a book downloaded itself onto the device—Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. At least, that’s what the title page said. But even though I hadn’t read through the entire book, I had paged through enough of it to know that this wasn’t a standard translation.

“It’s a book code,” Sax muttered, looking over my shoulder. “A…triple nested book code? Maybe more?”

“That’s what I’m guessing.” I frowned. “The only question is whether its based on English or Irish…Greene, what number is the letter ‘C’ in Gaelic?”

“Third. Same as English. ‘R’ is fifteen, though.”

I tabbed through the book until I found page three, then counted to the fifteenth word. Exorbitant. Okay…probably not it. “What number is ‘R’ in English?”

“Eighteen.”

I moved three words over. The. That sounded more likely. “All right…give me the first two letters of the next line.”

“’S’ and ‘C.’ Nineteen and three.”

Page nineteen, third word…latrine.

Jarasax was still following my progress. “That doesn’t seem very likely.”

I kneaded my forehead. I was not built for code breaking. “Fine,” I said, handing him the reader. “You have a better idea?”

The middle-eastern man chewed his lip briefly. “I think…we should try doing it by letter. The first one is third page, eighteenth letter. That’s…G.” He tabbed back to page nineteen. “And then…A. Yeah, that sounds more likely. Miss Greene, what’s next?”

It took a while, but we eventually managed to pound out Kat’s code, letter by letter. Especially since it took a while for us to realize we were supposed to count spaces as letters. By the time we finished, I could see the sun dipping out of sight through the room’s sole window.

“’Fey scheming together,’” Sax read aloud. “’Investigating now. Tapped their comms before they switched, ask Little Sister zero zero nine nine eight two seven.’”

“I’ll just let myself out…” Lizzie said as she slinked away. The Thor bouncer had left hours ago. I barely noticed.

“LS0099827. That’s one of MC’s programs, right?”

Jarasax nodded. “Definitely. Not sure which one, of course, but we can figure it out. I’m more interested in why Kat didn’t just give the info to MC directly.”

Alex shrugged. “Paranoid, maybe? The fey are pretty good at rooting out spies. And if they’re working together now, its even worse.”

The fey courts had some…interesting relationships with each other. The seasons, directions, and Day/Night fought each other constantly, but at the same time they respected the boundaries they had created for themselves. Night’s Southern Autumn may as well not exist anywhere but the south of the city, and she disappeared completely during the non-fall months.

But if they were actually, actively working together, that meant…

Well, nothing, probably. The fey were crazy. They weren’t likely to toss fifteen years of paranoid psychosis to the side just at the drop of a hat. In fact, if they were trying to work together, the most likely result is that they’d end up killing each other.

I shook my head. “Whatever. We’ll see. I’ll take this to Clarke, see what he thinks.”

Sax raised an eyebrow. “Not MC?”

I shrugged. “Kat decided not to tell her, for whatever reason. We have to respect that until we know more. Clarke will have the expertise to check whatever data she dumped in the Little Sister. Then we’ll know more.”

Alex pulled out his phone. “I’ll call—” He frowned. “That’s weird. I missed a call from MC.” He moved the phone to his ear to listen to the message. After a moment, he cursed. “Dawn—I gotta go. A job came up.”

George grunted. “For just you?”

“Yeah…” the angel muttered. “I asked MC to call me the second anything came up. I didn’t think this would take so long…sorry guys, I really have to go.”

“It’s all right,” I promised. “We’ll be fine.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 37)

This almost went somewhere really weird. Weirder than it already is, I mean. Thankfully, I managed to stop myself before Kat’s message turned out to point them towards an ancient sect of druids that had lived in the city for centuries. Yes, the city is only thirty years old. That was my first clue I was doing something stupid.

Oh, and Lizzy and the Hammer are speaking Icelandic here.