Scene 36 – Quiritationis

QUIRITATIONIS

KATHERINE

My name is Katherine Lisbon. It is not ‘Kat,’ but people called me that even before I became a fel, so I really shouldn’t expect them to stop now. Being mute makes it hard to argue, anyway.

I had woken up strapped down in a van, but before I had a chance to try and free myself I had been unbuckled and dragged into a lab. The last thing I remembered was the fight with Akane, in the burning building. Why had she attacked me?

There was a song in the back of my mind, more beautiful than anything I had ever heard. Something was wrong with it, though—pieces were missing, notes out of tune. It was beautiful, but it could be so much more.

I tried to sing it to Akane, but she didn’t react. She just continued to pin down my arm, while Ling kept hold of the other. I had fought Akane before. Why had she attacked me? I didn’t understand. I had tried to ask her, but she hadn’t responded.

Of course. I was mute. They couldn’t hear me. Why had I forgotten that? Everything was getting fuzzy…

How long ago had that been? It was getting hard to think. I had never spoken much to start, so I hadn’t cared much when I took a bullet to the throat.

They tried to fix it, but vocal cords were tricky things, and back then the toy maker was a bit simpler. Now it would probably be easy, but I honestly liked it. If you can’t talk, no one expects you to.

I saw Derek, looking down on me with a sad expression on his face. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so I could see the large, bloodstained bandage across his chest, as well as a smaller one on his neck.

He was saying something. I could hear him, but I didn’t care enough to understand. Would he know the missing parts of the song?

Maybe…maybe that’s what he was saying. Maybe he was trying to tell me about the song right now.

With regret, I pushed the music to the back of my mind and concentrated on his voice. I still tried to sing, still tried to show everyone around me how beautiful it was, but it was more an unconscious action than anything else. It was no different than twiddling your thumbs.

“She hasn’t tried to transform?” he asked someone I couldn’t see.

I heard another voice. “No. That’s not that odd. A number of the captured screamers don’t use their powers unless threatened. They seem to vary between aggressive and merely defensive. Luckily, she is defensive.”

It was Doctor Isaac Clarke’s voice. That distinct, breathy excitement, like everything was the most important thing in the world…it was unmistakable.

Derek looked at me closer. “Is it just me, or is she thrashing less?”

“The defensive ones are smarter. She probably realized she couldn’t escape, and decided to conserve energy. Henry, get the clamps.”

A large man came into my vision, and I felt cold metal bands around my arms. I heard the sound of a power screwdriver, fastening me to the steel slab I was laying on.

“I doubt that will keep her contained if she transforms,” Laura’s voice pointed out.

“We don’t know enough about this power,” Clarke retorted. “She might not be able to wriggle out of this. Either way, we’ll get her in a cage as soon as possible.”

“Shouldn’t you be resting?” Ling asked from my left side, with a slight lisp. I noted blearily that she seemed to be missing a few teeth. The toy maker would fix that soon enough. She was looking at Derek. “You lost a lot of blood.”

He waved his hand. “I’ll be fine.”

“We can handle this,” Kelly said from behind me. I couldn’t see her, but I could feel her shadow. “Go to sleep.”

He sighed. “Okay, okay.” He pointed at Ling and Akane. “But you both need to get some attention too. You guys got banged up pretty bad.”

They both left without another word, and I found myself singing louder again. Derek was clever. He would know the missing parts. I should have asked him when I had the chance.

The others were talking, but I wasn’t interested. I had to share the song. They couldn’t hear me. What could I do?

Change.

That would be a good idea. But why hadn’t I thought of it before?

Change.

It wasn’t my thought. It took me a moment to parse it, but it was an alien word, reverberating under the song. I knew I shouldn’t listen to it. I’m cautious by nature, and a sourceless voice in my brain wasn’t going to change my mind.

Change.

I changed.

It was a strange feeling, one that is difficult to describe. As my body dissolved into black smoke, I felt as though I had slipped into a cool pool of water. All my sensations disappeared, leaving behind nothingness. I couldn’t see or hear or feel. It wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but it wasn’t quite enjoyable either. It simply was.

But it faded quickly, as the smoke re-coalesced in a new shape.

I was smaller now, out of the restraints, and all the color had bled from the environment. I flapped my wings and flew off the table, fluttering past a shocked Akane.

I could feel…something. Some energy, some power source in my gut draining fast. I needed to escape, to share the song, before it emptied completely.

But I was trapped in a room, a lab twenty feet wide and long. There was nowhere to run to.

My reservoir depleted while I was circling one of the dim lights in the ceiling, and I instantly reverted to my original form. I landed on the floor easily; I’ve always had good reflexes, even before I became a fel.

I looked at my friends and the doctor, clustered around the table I had just fled. They eyed me warily.

Kill.

Now, hold on. Why would I want to do that? These were my friends, and even if Clarke was annoying, he hardly deserved to die. The thing with Akane was probably just a misunderstanding. Besides, I just wanted to share the song. They could hardly fill in the blanks if they were dead.

Kill.

No, I didn’t think so. Instead, I backed slowly into the corner of the room, keeping an eye on my friends. They weren’t armed, except for Akane, but they were still dangerous if they decided to attack for some reason.

Kill.

No. I wouldn’t. Not now.

As soon as I thought that, I felt a sense of freedom. The song eased in my mind, and I began to think more clearly. I quickly realized the implications.

I had thrown off the compulsion! If I could do it, so could others. It wouldn’t be easy, but with patience we could cure everyone. We just had to give them something to fight for, a reason to push aside the song.

Then my body lunged forward.

I tried to stop. I mentally hit the brakes as hard as I could, but nothing happened.

It wasn’t under my control any more. It was like my body belonged to someone else entirely. I could only watch as I attacked my friends, and Akane slashed at my legs, trying to immobilize me as quickly as possible.

Now it made sense. If throwing off the song was truly so easy, I wouldn’t have been the first one. No, the ‘defensive’ screamers were simply those who had been completely seduced by the song, and retained some semblance of intelligence behind it. The ‘aggressive’ ones, the far more common variety, were those who tried to fight the compulsions, and were rendered prisoners in their own bodies because of it.

Collaborator or slave. No choice at all, really.

The lights suddenly flashed, and I felt pain through my nighteyes. My body stumbled back, dazed. Before it could recover, Akane hit it hard in the center of the forehead with the hilt of her sword.

Unconsciousness swept over me like a warm blanket.

Behind the Scenes (scene 36)

Loga (the screamer changeling) went through a similar process as this when he was turned. Everyone does. And they never remember if they are cured.

Of course, there’s only one way to cure a screamer, and the Composer has made that option pretty much impossible. Sure, he/she/it/they has a few more obstacles that way, but that’s fine with him/her/it/them.

Extra update Wednesday.

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Scene 34 – Persequemini

PERSEQUEMINI

AKANE

I slashed quickly, bisecting the bat cleanly. It burst into a cloud of black smoke, which quickly coalesced into two halves of a young Nosferatu, cut diagonally from shoulder to opposite hip. Underneath the claws and fangs and nighteyes, I was surprised to find an ordinary Asian girl, only a bit older than me.

Not much different from my sisters.

I shook my head to clear away the distracting thoughts. Now was not the time to relive those memories. Kat was gaining ground even as I stood here brooding. I had to catch her before she found victims. I sped forward, my power at about half strength, trying to make up for lost time.

I could see her ahead of me, albeit only barely. Her tawny coat wasn’t the best camouflage for a moonlit night, but she made up for it by turning into a bat every few minutes. Every time she did that, I almost lost her.

Where was she going? We were heading away from the battle, past locked and gated shops and apartments. The people here knew better than to poke their noses into a warzone, so at least I didn’t have to worry about even more screamers yet.

What was she thinking?

And she was thinking. There were two types of screamers Laura had identified: The more common ‘aggressive’ types, which were dumb as dirt, and the rarer ‘defensive’ screamers, which seemed at least as intelligent as before their infection.

Kat was obviously of the latter variety, based solely on the fact that she hadn’t just turned around and tried to kill me. But then that meant she had a plan. I just had to figure out what it was.

She dodged around a corner, and I hurried to catch up. I needn’t have bothered. By the time I rounded the corner, the street in front of me was completely empty.

Musashi’s sword, this was an annoying hunt. At least with monsters I knew what they were looking for, so I could predict them better.

I stalked forward slowly. I hadn’t lost her entirely; I could still hear her screaming with that weird sixth sense we had, but it wasn’t accurate enough to pinpoint her location.

“Hey.”

I stopped dead at the sound of the soft, feminine voice.

Unlike the screaming, this was easy to find the source of. To my left, from the bottom floor of the building, just a few doors from the corner. A large horizontal metal grate covered the door and windows, an anti-theft measure that proved equally adept at deterring wandering murderers and zombies.

“You’re not a ferret,” the voice noted. It was a female voice with an accent I couldn’t quite identify. It wasn’t Romanian though, and she didn’t sound like her mouth was overstuffed with teeth, so the chances of her being a Nosferatu were low. But still, I couldn’t take any chances. I nodded politely in her direction and headed forward again.

“Wait!” she hissed. “You’re chasing that fel screamer, right? We can help!”

I stopped and glared suspiciously at the door. “Why?”

“Trade for information. C’mon, get in here.” She opened the door wider and unbolted the grate.

Regretfully, I slipped inside the dark building. I knew from experience that if someone offered you help on a hunt it was always best to at least hear them out, but usually Derek did that part.

Once inside, it took me a second to notice the person I had been speaking to, hidden behind the door. As the woman stepped—or rather, slithered—out of the shadows, the first thing I noticed was that her legs had been fused into one long, sinuous tail, which was clearly strong enough to hold her upright. An ophidian? In vampire territory, no less? Odd.

But on second glance, I realized I was mistaken. Her horns and red skin marked her as a marilith, not an ophidian. That was pretty odd all on its own; mariliths weren’t all that rare, but ones who got the full package definitely were. And the Nosferatu were not exactly friendly to outsiders, so it was strange seeing anyone flaunting their toys so blatantly.

As she locked the grate and door behind us, I noticed a few other people scattered around the room, lit by dim light coming from one of the doorways. Two were normal demons, but one was covered in fur, had a long and powerful tail, and had the face of a goat, with the horns to match.

First a marilith, and now a bulezau? I hadn’t seen one of those in person since Shendilavri.

“This is the demon embassy to the Nosferatu,” the marilith explained as she slithered over to the others. She had probably noticed the confused look on my face. On second glance, I could see the demon flag hanging on the wall. It was probably outside, too. “We boarded up immediately once the fighting started. Is it really screamers out there?”

Too many people. “Yes.”

The woman frowned. “Are we safe here? I don’t even know what their powers are. I can’t find a way out without more information.”

The main draw of the marilith subculture was not the package, but the environment they had created—that is, the culture itself. They got accused of being armchair tacticians a lot, but most of them were actually extremely cunning strategists. It wasn’t at all uncommon to find one of them hired to help another subculture with one of their fights. They tried to stay out of politics, but even maintaining neutrality as a mercenary was difficult. Mostly, they helped defend against the fey.

The bulezau shook his head. “Superpowers…I still can’t believe it. What’s next? The angels will grow wings and open the gates to Heaven?”

“The aves are working on wings,” one of the other demons noted. “And depending on your definition of Heaven—”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“Safe,” I cut in before they had a chance to really start sniping at each other. “…probably.” I indicated the door I had just entered through. “Keep locked.” I blushed when I noticed they were all staring. “Ah…and the fel?”

The marilith clapped her hands. “Right, of course. It’s not much, but we do have some nets that should prove useful. Sobber is a birdcatcher.” She nodded at the bulezau. “He’ll go grab one.”

As the goat-demon growled left, the man he had been arguing with seemed to notice my confusion. “His name is Song of Blood, but he hates it—for obvious reasons. Call him Seth.”

“Well, that’s what happens when your parents are chem-head vampires,” the man in question noted as he returned from the next room, with a folded net in his arms. It was pretty big, but the holes were small enough that a bat shouldn’t be able to slip out. “They come up with really weird names and think they’re a good idea.”

I blinked. The toy maker was invented fifteen years ago. The vampires, the first culture, rose about six months later. Chems were a bit harder to pin down, but even if we threw that out completely, that would mean this bulezau was less than fifteen years old.

He could easily pass for thirty.

That was one of the side effects of the toy maker. It was hard to pin down someone’s age when they could change it on a whim.

Regardless, I took the net with a grateful nod. I still had to find her, but once I did at least I’d be able to catch her.

Although it ramped up the awkwardness more than a tad, I left as quickly as I could, with the marilith locking the gate again behind me. They had clearly wanted to wring me for more information, but that was hardly my strong suit. I made a mental note to tell Laura about them later. She could decide what they should know.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath of the cold night air, and concentrated. The screaming was…ahead, above and to the left.

I snapped my eyes back open. As I suspected, the screaming was coming from a building, a ‘scraper some forty or fifty stories tall. Hopefully it was an empty one, but I doubted it. This area wasn’t exactly residential, but it definitely wasn’t abandoned either.

Well, the situation wasn’t going to improve with me just standing here. I rushed across the street and pushed my way inside, past the flimsy security grate crumpled to one side. The sign on the door marked it as an apartment building. Not good. Too many potential victims.

Kat’s screams led up the stairs at the back, but I was more interested in the muffled whimpering I could hear off to my right. It might be a trap, but I felt confident it was genuine.

Kat had left survivors.

It didn’t mean much, I reminded myself as I strode towards the door in question. She hadn’t done it on purpose. But still, I couldn’t hear any new screamers, and I didn’t see any bodies. Whatever the cause, it boded well.

I rapped on the steel door twice, trying not to make too much noise, lest I attract unwanted attention. But whoever was on the other side evidently heard me; the whimpering stopped immediately, and I heard footsteps come up to the door.

“Hello?” a very small, probably male voice asked. He sounded young, probably five or six. Good. I could deal with kids. Usually.

“I’m a Paladin,” I said softly. “Are you all right? How many people are in there?”

“I’m fine. I-I think I am.”

“That’s good. What about everyone else? How are they?”

“I’m the only one in here. I don’t think…you’re the first one to come looking.”

The sole survivor was a kid? Well, at least there was a survivor. And better him than a dozen murderous Nosferatu.

“I’m Akane. What’s your name?”

“P-Patrick.”

“Okay Patrick, I need you to stay right here, okay? Don’t open the door until an adult tells you its all clear. Can you do that for me?”

“Uh-huh.”

“All right. Someone will be here soon enough.”

I turned back and started up the stairs, not bothering to use my speed. My reservoir was full, but I didn’t want to risk facing Kat with anything less than full power. I still wasn’t really sure how smart a defensive screamer would be, so I was being cautious, even though I didn’t see Kat anywhere nearby.

It was at the third floor that my caution became justified. I felt a tug at my ankles, and heard the distinct twang of a snare trap snapping.

I didn’t have time to think. I cranked my speed up to full and ran forward, desperately trying to escape the blast radius. But still, I couldn’t resist looking back.

Slow motion explosions are my favorite parts of most movies. Honestly, they’re pretty much the only reason I go. Whether it’s a real explosion or CG, the attention to detail required never ceases to impress me.

In real life, I found that it’s even better. The slowly expanding sphere of fire lighting up the stairwell was impressive enough on its own. But I could feel the rising heat. I could feel the air rushing past me into the temporary vacuum, feeding the hungry flame. Shrapnel, shards of the bomb and slivers of the stairwell, flew past me, shining like stars from the heat.

My reservoir dried up just as I managed to round the corner. I dodged the explosion by less than five feet. Worse yet, the fire had caught most of the stairwell. The entire ‘scraper would go up soon, if I couldn’t find the sprinkler system. Why wasn’t it already on, anyway?

But that could wait. Someone had set that trap, which meant they would be expecting an enemy. I had to get out of here quickly. They probably thought I was a screamer.

Turns out I was mistaken.

The trap hadn’t been set for screamers.

Something large and human-shaped dropped onto my back, short but sharp claws tearing at my flesh. I shrugged her off, losing a bit of skin in the process, and confirmed my suspicions.

Kat. She had set a trap and an ambush, and was trying to take me out before my reservoir could replenish.

Her fur looked a little singed here and there, probably from hanging from the ceiling just outside the radius of an incendiary grenade. But if it pained her, she didn’t show it. She slipped into a three-point stance as gracefully as one of the felines she was emulating. She kept her right hand up, claws out, ready to leap forward and strike.

Her mouth was still open, trying to scream, but nothing came out. But there was…something. Something in her expression. Anthros are hard to read, and nighteyes aren’t much better, but I could tell she was analyzing the situation. Considering it from a tactical perspective, unlike the other screamers, who just rushed in like blind animals.

I didn’t give her a chance to come up with a plan. I rushed forward, hoping to catch her off guard. I didn’t have my power to fall back on, but I’m still pretty fast when I want to be.

But I wasn’t packed with a few thousand dollars worth of buffs.

She dodged my slash easily by leaping to the side, landing on the solid railing of the stairwell with her hands. She then lithely brought her feet back down and started running up the rail away from me. I followed along the stairs.

Which, of course, was her intention.

The second trap wasn’t another grenade—either she ran out of explosives or she was afraid the first one would have set off the second prematurely. Rather, it was just a couple weak steps, probably weakened even more by the explosion. The second I stepped on them, they shattered under my feet without even a groan of warning.

I managed to grab the unbroken step in front of me with one hand as I fell, but it wasn’t enough to pull myself up. I scrambled to sheath my sword and get a free hand, but I didn’t have much luck.

Kat cartwheeled onto the stairs a few steps in front of me, the claws of her bare feet gripping the wood tightly.

I didn’t have a choice. I needed both hands.

So I dropped my sword.

My sword wasn’t all that important, in the long run. It wasn’t a very high-quality sword, and it was getting old enough that I really should be considering buying a new one. I definitely had the money to get one of the best on the market. It didn’t have any real importance other than the fact that it was a gift.

But it was my sword. A symbol of my dedication, a reminder of why I fought. No matter how little sense it made, some part of me was terrified that if something happened to it, my determination would suffer the same fate.

I steeled my heart as I heard it clatter to the ground three or four stories below. I could collect it later, but I had to be alive to do that.

With my newly unburdened right hand, I reached out and grabbed Kat’s ankle and yanked hard. She didn’t fall, but she did lose her balance long enough for me to scramble up out of my precarious position. On my hands and knees was better than dangling above a raging inferno.

The fire was climbing higher, the temperature was rising, and smoke was filling the air. But I didn’t have time to worry about any of that right now. Kat slashed upwards at my face with her claws, aiming at my eyes.

But I had some power in my reservoir now.

I didn’t drain it completely, just tapped into it enough to leap to my feet faster than she anticipated and dodge her attack. She stepped forward and slashed with her other hand, but I dodged that one by stepping inside her reach and slamming my shoulder into her.

I’ll admit, I’m not really used to fighting humans. Oh, I take care of a few angry ghouls now and again, and I’m at the top of my kendo class, but most of my skills are geared towards fighting monsters. Humans are a different beast altogether, and not just because they walk upright. The fact that I got caught in no less than two traps is evidence enough of that.

Kat, however, was used to fighting humans. She knew our tricks and how to play to our weaknesses. She was a sniper first and foremost, true, but a good sniper can mix it up in melee for when the enemy finds their nest. The furry little screamer had blackbelts in at least three different martial arts disciplines, and could give pretty much anyone in the city a run for their money in hand-to-hand.

Also, she had claws.

I bit my lip to keep from crying out as she embraced my tackle and started shredding my back. I was already bleeding from her earlier attack, but this was worse.

I threw the tawny cat girl to one side, intending to chuck her over the railing. But in my confusion, I accidentally threw her the wrong direction, thudding her heavily into the wall instead, stunning her for a moment.

I headed farther up the stairs as my shirt and bra fell away in shreds. Some distant part of my mind was scandalized at my nudity, but the more practical parts noted that the front of the shirt was still intact, and I should be able to turn it into a makeshift bandage. My wounds were already beginning to sting, and blood loss was getting to me, but I pushed it all aside for the moment. Everything could wait until I dealt with Kat.

I didn’t have any time to come up with a plan, though. Kat was tough all on her own, and the power package just made her tougher. Even though her skull had smacked hard against the wall, she shook off her disorientation and was after me in under half a minute.

Of course, she had a power as well, and she seemed to know how to put it to best use. She jumped back onto the railing and then leaped diagonally forward, towards a spot about ten feet ahead of me on the stairwell. She would never make the jump, but she didn’t have to. Just before she started to lose momentum, she exploded into black smoke, which reformed into a bat, flapping madly. It only lasted a few seconds before the process reversed, but that was more than enough time for her to get ahead of me and land gracefully.

The smoke was getting thicker as the flames devoured more of the building. I needed to end this before the entire place went up. Even before that, I’d start choking on the smoke soon.

My reservoir was mostly full at this point, and I still had the net clipped to my belt, but even at super speed I wasn’t confident I’d be able to capture Kat. The net was huge for bird catching, but only barely big enough for a human. If I tried to grab her, she would probably be able to just slip out as a bat.

While I hesitated, she acted. She leaped forward, claws out, ready to tear out my throat.

I might not have my sword, but that didn’t mean I was defenseless. I whipped out one of the combat knives I kept on my belt and met the fel’s attack.

Her experience reared its head again; while most people would have flinched away or taken the hit, she grabbed my wrist, moved my strike aside, and slashed at my bare chest with her other hand.

Not many people have ever had an angry cat claw at their boobs. Suffice it to say it hurts. I yowled involuntarily and tore her claws away, losing a bit more skin in the process and splattering her tawny fur with blood. She jerked her arm out of my grip and leaped backwards, where she could watch me warily.

Between the roaring fire and the blood loss…this was taking too long. But Kat still held the advantage due to the simple fact that she was trying to kill me, while I was trying to capture her. My only chance to even the odds was to stop holding back and start aiming to kill. Derek would be upset, and the retinue would be angry, but they’d understand.

I flipped my knife in a reverse grip and rushed forward without hesitation. She was ready for me, of course. She knew better than to try to grab my wrist again, but she had other tricks up her sleeve.

She dove at my feet, under my knife, probably to try and upend me. It was a risky maneuver, but a well-played one: It wasn’t something anyone would expect, and since she wasn’t injured and I was, she had a much larger margin of error to work with.

But by this point, my reservoir was full again.

I dipped into it to move at about ten percent of my maximum, just enough to give me the speed to hop up onto her head and run along her back. I let my power go and wheeled around; as expected, she was sprawled face down on the steps, just a few feet from the yawning hole that was already filling with flame from down below.

She was a bit stunned from the complete failure of her unorthodox maneuver (not to mention nearly falling to her death), and I didn’t intend to give her time to recover. I didn’t try and push her into the fire; she was ready for that, and it would snap her back to her senses faster than smelling salts. Instead, I did away with all that complicated tactical frippery and stabbed her in the back of the neck.

Except…

She was at my mercy now. Not for long, true, but I had a chance. It was a chance that probably wouldn’t come again; despite this close call, she was still fresh, while I was getting weaker by the second. Luck accounted for a lot in combat, but not everything.

But if I killed her, the retinue would be devastated. Kelly and Sax had known her for a while, and she was one of their only friends. Alex and George were warming up to her. Her death would create a rift that might never be repaired. Or, more specifically, her death at my hands would hit them like a bullet to the gut. Death was common. One friend killing another…less so.

So, using my speed to gain a little extra time, I flipped the knife back around and smacked her as hard as I could in the back of the head with the hilt.

I didn’t have time to worry about giving her a concussion. With her toys and the package, I wasn’t entirely sure I could knock her out.

Turns out I could. She slumped against the steps like a sack of sand, and a brief second with my fingers at her neck told me she was still alive.

But not for long, if I wasn’t careful. The fire was spreading. Looking down, maybe half of the lower floors were already aflame. That didn’t make much sense—fire tends to eat up faster than down—but I suppose there could have been something exceptionally flammable down there or whatever that caught when the grenade first blew.

After making a few quick bandages (including one that conveniently doubled as a bra), I wrapped Kat up in the net the bulezau had given me and strapped her to my back with my belt. My pants were a little loose without it, but I could manage. At least the fel was pretty light. If this were almost anyone else, I probably would have been forced to cut my losses and abandon them.

Once I was sure she was secure and my reservoir was full, I didn’t waste any more time. I jumped off the railing, aiming carefully for some of the non-burning floor four levels below.

The split-second before we landed, I cranked up my speed as high as it would go. For some reason, this works. When I have my speed up, the laws of physics—including the inertia that would kill me from a fall like this—don’t apply quite as strictly.

The floor cracked a bit as we landed and we threw up a huge ash cloud as everything within ten feet was blown away by air pressure, but other than that there was no harm. In fact, the ash actually put out some of the nearby fires.

I found my sword quickly enough where it had bounced under the stairwell, and took both it and Kat outside. I laid them on the sidewalk a door or two down, made sure Kat’s netting was secure, and headed back in. I couldn’t leave her alone for long, but I had one last thing to take care of.

I found the door from earlier without any difficulty. Thankfully, the fire seemed to have skipped over this part in favor of the more flammable back rooms, so there was no debris, and minimal smoke.

“Patrick!” I cried as I got closer. “Are you in there? We need to go now!”

I didn’t hear any response other than the flames roaring from every direction, but I didn’t have time to wait. I reared back and kicked the door, near the lock. It didn’t break, of course—it was a steel door—but I heard the lock squeal a little under the pressure. I kicked again, then again, and—

Then I realized that the sole of my shoe was melting from the heat of the door.

Then the door exploded.

I had weakened the lock sufficiently that the pressure of the hot air was able to do the rest of the job. Using what little of my speed I had left, I was able to dodge the brief fireball, although only by hiding behind the door and getting third-degree burns on my arm in the process.

I had more to worry about right now than a couple burns, though. The second the burst of flame had passed, I jumped back around and headed into the room. I knew what I was going to find, but I had to check—

I shouldn’t have. Musashi’s broken sword, I shouldn’t have.

Most of the room was on fire. Turns out it was one of those flammable rooms; the fire had just taken a roundabout route to get to it, through a cheap wooden door on another wall. There was a lot of old burning furniture, but no windows, which had probably combined to create the overpressure.

In the center of the room, laying on a couch, was the corpse of a small child.

I couldn’t tell any details. He was already burned mostly beyond recognition; the couch was burning violently, and had probably caught fire too quickly for him to run. I couldn’t tell if he had died in pain or not; the fire made it hard to tell what position his body was in—whether it was a horrible throe of pain or the gentle repose of a boy who died in his sleep.

I left quickly but quietly, knowing that if I stayed much longer I wouldn’t be able to function.

I had a job to do, and it wasn’t over yet.

The second I was out of the burning building, I flipped out my phone and dialed MC, even as I was checking Kat’s bonds again.

Once I got to the real MC, I didn’t waste any time. “I need an interrogation van over at the burning ‘scraper in Nosferatu territory. Make sure they have lots of sedatives. If she wakes up she’s going to escape, no matter what kind of cages they have on hand.”

“Wait, you set another building on fire? Sooner or later we’re going to start charging you, and not even you can afford that.”

I groaned. “This was not my fault. And neither was the dog house or the rat warren.”

“Yeah, yeah…” she muttered, distracted by something. Probably the main fight, with the angels and all that. “Whatever. You injured?”

“I need treatment for…” I winced and did a quick tally. “Multiple lacerations, a bad burn, severe blood loss…” I coughed. “And maybe a little bit of smoke inhalation. How soon can they be here?”

“Ten minutes,” she promised. “Along with a fire truck. Can you hold out that long?”

Ten minutes. “Yes,” I said weakly. “Just…” I focused on my breathing. “Just make sure they get here.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 34)

The building was mostly empty when the fire started, and those who remained were awake and ready to escape should the screamers get too close. Most of them survived relatively unharmed, though the people in the rooms closest to the grenade died pretty quickly.

Scene 31 – Aurora

AURORA

DEREK

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

Then the screaming started.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gang war.”

I cursed and handed the device back to him.

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

“And then the screamers appeared.”

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “You’re joking.”

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

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

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

Laura nodded. “How many?”

He just grinned. “All of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then a scream split the night.

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

And they needed help.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We jumped in before they knew what hit them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Halifax?” I demanded.

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

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

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

I sighed again. Wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head. That girl.

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

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

Halifax laughed and screeched something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked.

A fel? In Nosferatu territory?

And where was Kat?

“Oh no,” I whispered.

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

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

“Daybreak,” I ordered.

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

“No time. Daybreak, NOW.”

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

Day broke.

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

The Nosferatu and the screamers were not so lucky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was betting on the screamers.

“Laura, how’s Kat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh good,” I whispered, and collapsed.

It had been an interesting hour.

Behind the Scenes (scene 31)

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

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

Scene 30 – Tempus Transit

TEMPUS TRANSIT

KELLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kat, I have a question.”

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

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

Kat’s ears suddenly stopped moving.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gabriel grinned. “No worries, brother.”

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

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

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

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

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

“George,” I admonished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paladins were leaving the park.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 30)

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

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

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

Scene 20 – Custodis

CUSTODIS

KELLY

Sitting in the driver’s seat, Jarasax clicked through something on his phone. “I think that went pretty well, don’t you?”

I raised an eyebrow from the passenger seat right next to him. “Over a hundred people screaming and who knows how many dead, and you think it went well?”

From behind me, in the back of the van, George grunted. “I think he meant the Paladins held themselves together, all things considered.” He checked his minigun briefly, then threw a blanket over it and pushed it into a corner. “And I have to agree. It could have gone much worse.”

Kat’s fingers flashed, and I nodded.

“See, that’s what I meant. The kids did great, but there were some stupid mistakes. Medina should have stayed with us, for one thing. The strategist shouldn’t be on the front lines.”

The fel’s fingers twitched.

Jarasax rolled his eyes. “Don’t encourage her, Kat.” He waved away our complaints as he pocketed his phone. “Medina knew what she was doing, and it all worked out in the end.”

“And we got some interesting intelligence out of it,” Alex noted as he pared his fingernails with one of his mirrored dayknives. “That changeling boy might be able to help us win this thing before it even really starts.”

George rubbed his forehead. “Someone needs to explain that to me. I keep hearing about this kid, but no one has had time to tell me why he’s so damn important.”

“He was a screamer,” the angel explained. “Then Medina killed the singer that turned him, and suddenly he wasn’t.”

The ogre pursed his lips. “Ah,” he said quietly.

“Yeah,” Alex said with a grin. “’Ah.’ Quite important indeed.”

I pulled my ratburger out of the lunch box at my feet and handed Jarasax his sandwich. “I heard some interesting rumors about that. One of Doctor Henry’s aides mentioned that the changeling had fire powers now.”

Kat’s fingers twitched briefly.

“Right,” I apologized around a bite of my burger. “Sorry, I forgot.” I swallowed. “Belman Henry is one of Clarke’s aides. He was put in charge of the changeling.”

George grinned. “That’s amazing. And useful. Another Paladin will help a lot.”

If its true,” Alex noted. His knife disappeared with a flick of his wrist as he finished his nails, and it took me a second to spot it in its sheath on his hip. “This friend of a friend rumor is hardly trustworthy.”

“We’ll find out soon enough,” I put in. I noticed Jarasax glaring at my burger in something like disgust. “Something wrong?”

The dark-skinned changeling turned away and shook his head. “Sorry. Those seaweed buns just make my stomach churn.”

I snorted, almost choking on the bite. I made sure to swallow before speaking. “My salary isn’t good enough to splurge. I can afford my fixer, or wheat bread. Not both.”

Kat signed something again.

Sax cocked his head to the side, frowning. “Was that sarcasm? I can’t tell.”

A few more finger flashes.

He grunted and turned back to the wheel, as if he actually had to pay attention to it while we were parked. “No need to be rude.”

“I really need to learn sign language,” George muttered from the back. “I keep missing out on Kat’s jokes.”

I resisted the urge to laugh; I didn’t want to choke again. “You’re not missing out on much, trust me.”

The fel growled a little under her throat and opened the van door to leave.

“Hey, don’t be like that! I was just joking.”

She rolled her eyes—its hard to notice with all-black nighteyes, but still—and signed something.

“Oh. Sorry, I forgot.” I turned to my angelic friend. “Alex, you want to go with her to pick up that new game?”

He shrugged. “I’d be happy to, but I don’t speak sign language. Wouldn’t one of you two be better?”

“She just needs someone to ask the guy to get it from the back. And we’re eating.”

The angel leaped deftly out of the van. “Fine by me. Let’s go, Kat.”

Once they were out of sight around the corner, George raised an eyebrow. “What was that about?”

I frowned as I finished my burger. “What do you mean?”

“I meant, what was that about?”

“I know. What are you asking about?”

“I’m asking about Kat. Why’d she leave all of a sudden?”

I was beginning to get annoyed. “She’s gonna buy a video game. Weren’t you listening?”

The ogre rubbed his forehead. “Yes, I…why did she choose right now to go get it?”

Ah. That was a question I understood. “Some of the more popular vampire games come out at noon. You know, a midnight release kind of thing.” I glanced at my watch. “She’s a couple hours early, but the line is probably long.”

He nodded and settled back. “Right, that makes sense. I just lost track of time. Still having trouble getting used to the Insomniac gland.”

Jarasax perked up. “When did you get yours? Before you got this assignment, right?”

“A couple weeks ago,” the giant confirmed. “Still not quite used to not sleeping.” He frowned. “Which reminds me…I’ve been meaning to ask—”

“I don’t have the gland,” Jarasax interrupted in a blunt tone. “I’m not going to break my oath over eight hours of sleep.”

“Hey now,” George said apologetically. “No need to get worked up. I know you guys don’t use toys. Just curious how you’ve managed to stay up with us, that’s all.”

The changeling pulled an empty drink bottle out of the recycling bin situated in the center of the floor. “Insomniac energy drink,” he explained. “Pretty much does the same thing as the gland, just as a drink.” He shrugged. “Less effective, and more expensive in the long run, but it works well enough.”

“It also melts your brain if you stop taking it,” I noted, scratching the fixer on my arm.

Sax grinned a little weakly. “Well, yeah. They’re not having much success marketing it to non-changelings.”

“Seems a weird way to do it,” George said, taking the bottle from Sax’s hands and looking at it a little closer. “Wouldn’t pills be easier?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” I explained. “Right now, if you want to take it as a pill, you have to take one every hour. They can do it as a shot, though, but they were trying to market it to a wide base, and most people don’t like needles.”

“I hear they’re gonna start selling the shots,” Jarasax cut in. “Alongside the drinks, I mean. See which one sells better. Apparently some kid drank some of his dad’s or whatever, so there’s been a bit of backlash.”

George shivered. “Chems freak me out. Why do you people do that to yourselves?”

I glared daggers at him. “Hey. Some of us are reformed.”

He winced. “Sorry, ma’am. It’s just, I can’t understand doing anything that would screw with my brain chemistry.”

I sighed and decided he deserved a real answer. “Well, the side effects are minimal at first. Even when full-addiction sets in and everything starts going sideways, the benefits can still outweigh the costs.”

The giant waved his hand. “I know, I know. I just can’t imagine ever wanting to…” he shrugged. “It’s a preferences thing, I guess.”

I bit my tongue to keep from snapping at him. Preferences? He thinks people get addicted to every chem on the market because they like it?

Thankfully, before I could lose my head, Jarasax noticed my consternation. “George, why don’t you go take a walk? Check in on Kat and stuff?”

The giant glanced between us and looked like he was going to say something, but then just shrugged and crawled to the van door. He grabbed his claymore and belted it to his back before walking away; it was useless against screamers for obvious reasons, but it was a great deterrent against more mundane muggers who might think he was an easy mark otherwise.

The Middle-Eastern changeling finished up the last of his sandwich and eyed me warily. “You gonna be all right there, boss?”

I frowned. “Yes, of course. Why do you ask?”

He nodded to my hand. “I was afraid you might do something…unwise.”

I slowly managed to release my death-grip on my pistol. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was just holding it for…comfort.”

“Comfort,” he deadpanned.

“Yeah, it makes me feel better.”

He rolled his eyes. “Look, I know George has been pushing your buttons for the last few days, but don’t let it get to you. He means well, and he’s a good soldier.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. I read his file and everything I’m just…” I waved my hand weakly, at a loss for words.

“…not used to command?” he finished politely.

I nodded. “Yeah. We’re specialists. Grunt commandos. You’re in your element, but I’m not supposed to be in charge. My officer credentials consist solely of surviving the biter attack and saluting Huntsman when he shouted at me.”

He shrugged. “You’re the best we’ve got, though. Alex isn’t exactly leadership material, and the bosses still remember that time I tried to shoot my lieutenant. Kat’s a sniper, not to mention mute, and George doesn’t have a head for tactics. Who else would it be?”

“I don’t know—anyone else?” I fished around in the lunch box and managed to find my water. “C’mon, Sax, I know Necessarius has a reputation for letting in any ragtag bunch of misfits and putting them to use, but there are better options out there than me.” I shook my head and took a swig of my drink. “At least a freakin’ corporal.”

The changeling didn’t say anything, and I glanced over at him, frowning. What was wrong?

After a moment’s silent contemplation, he looked me straight in the eye. “Kelly. Do you even know what is going on with the rest of the city right now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “…no? I mean, I’m assuming you’re not talking about the screamers.”

His gaze didn’t waver, but a frustrated look did pass over his face. “Gods of men and darkness, you need to start paying attention to the news.”

I took another drink from my water bottle, using it as an excuse to break eye contact and get away from that piercing gaze. “Fine, I’ll get on that. Just tell me what you’re talking about.”

He brushed his hair out of his eyes. “Kel, we’re all that’s left.”

“What?” I shook my head. “No, don’t be ridiculous. Necessarius is stronger than ever.”

“In pure numbers, yes,” he admitted. “But that’s not what I’m talking about. We’ve taken some heavy hits recently, lost a lot of our officers. Putting down the old gangs was costly, and we still have to deal with the cultures.”

“Yes, I know,” I said as patiently as I could. “But recruitment is way up.”

“That’s the exact problem. Everyone we have is completely green.”

Then it clicked, and I put down my water. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” he deadpanned. “Oh. Right now, the five of us are some of the most experienced soldiers the Big Boss has, period.” He sighed. “Alex snooped around, and said that if we hadn’t been put on this job, we’d all have been bumped up to sergeant at least.”

“Put the veterans in charge of the greenies,” I muttered. “Definitely a better idea than promoting a couple of snot-nosed kids a few ranks up the ladder.”

The changeling nodded. “Exactly. But then the whole thing with the screamers started, and everyone was scrambling to figure out a solution.” He shrugged. “We’re most useful here. If they sent anyone else, they’d just get killed.”

“And we wouldn’t react well to being commanded by a completely green corporal or whatever.”

He tilted his head in assent. “Exactly. So don’t be so hard on yourself; we need you to stay strong.” He shrugged. “If it makes you feel better, remember that technically we’re under the command of the Paladins. You’re not actually in charge.”

“That—” I paused before I could finished my retort. “…actually, that does make me feel better. Thanks.”

“What makes you feel better?” George grunted as he slid open the door to the van using the side of his body, his arms filled with candy and chocolate.

“Never you mind,” I assured him. “And what’s with the snacks?”

The giant grinned. “The nearest 24-7 store had a sale. I figured we may as well have something better than protein bars and ratburgers.”

Jarasax snorted. “You might have the buffs to eat a couple pounds of chocolate at once, but the rest of us will get sick.”

“I didn’t mean for us to eat it all at once. Besides, we need sugar because of the Insomniac buffs, right?”

I shrugged. “He’s got a point, Sax.”

“I also got a job at the board. A quick delivery a few blocks away.”

The changeling raised an eyebrow at me. “Still think he’s got a point?”

“Just because he’s wrong about one thing doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything,” I insisted a little angrily. I turned to the giant. “We’re supposed to be keeping an eye on the Paladins in case of an attack, not taking on side-quests.”

“Ten minutes,” he promised. “No more. Maybe a little less if we drive.”

He certainly looked eager. And a nice, easy delivery mission might be just the thing to get morale up after the burner attack…

Finally, I sighed and flipped out my phone to text Alex and Kat. “Fine. But this is it. If you have an idea like this again, make sure to ask first.”

The ogre grinned and buckled himself in. “Yes, ma’am.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 20)

The Insomniac gland is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and is extremely common among doctors, law enforcement, and anyone else expected to be on call at all hours. It completely removes the need to sleep, with only two side effects: First, the modder loses the ability to sleep at all (unfortunate, but everyone saw that coming), and second, they require about ten percent more calories, mostly in sugar. All in all, a pretty good deal.

Unless you’re one of the six percent of the population that are psychologically addicted to dreams beyond what is biologically necessary, in which case a lack of REM sleep will result in a psychotic break (“dreamsick”), in which case you’ll probably end up being put down like a mad dog. But they’re getting better at weeding those out before installing the buff.

Scene 17 – Cantor

CANTOR

LAURA

The Princess’s monsters never reached horde size, and they never swarmed. After ten minutes or so, they stopped showing up, and we killed the rest without difficulty. I guess she got bored.

Goddamned fey.

I made a mental note to explain everything about them to Adam later. At least he had stopped asking questions, and focused on the screamers. Akane and Ling would of course know everything already, and the retinue likely knew more than I did, with a changeling among their number.

Derek gave the order to move out, and we traveled the last couple blocks in the same formation as before. It quickly became apparent that the screamers were migrating away from us slowly, and they had already been through this away. Most of the cars were on fire, and all the lower-level stores had their windows shattered. There were surprisingly few bodies, which made sense; if the disease could really spread through a song, there would be a lot more zombies than before.

What really worried me, more than an infection we couldn’t protect against, was that the screamers seemed to have a purpose this time. Did that mean that whoever was behind this could actually control them directly?

I shied away from that thought. Something to worry about later.

For the time being, the song was the problem. I didn’t know anything concrete, obviously, but we might be able to rig up some sort of headphones to filter it out with MC’s help. But we definitely didn’t have anything like that on hand. Hopefully, those of us with powers would still be immune to infection, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Eventually we caught up with the horde, staying about a hundred yards behind them—close enough to observe, but hopefully far enough so they didn’t detect our presence.

“They’re chasing a crowd,” Derek cursed quietly. Don’t ask me how I could hear him over the sound of the screaming still echoing in my brain. It was like it was a sixth sense, separate from hearing. It didn’t interfere with my hearing any more than my sight did.

“We need more information before we do anything,” I advised. I turned to the fel, Katherine. “Can you scout ahead?” I didn’t mean it as an order, I honestly wasn’t sure if she had the ability. But she just nodded, slung her rifle over one shoulder, and started climbing up the side of the closest building.

A few minutes after she disappeared from view, Kelly got a text.

“Most of the crowd is safe with some Necessarians,” she reported. “They’ve set up a barricade, but it won’t last. There are other nests of survivors, but they’re getting picked off quickly.”

“Powers?” Derek asked with a grunt.

Kelly didn’t text anything; I assume she had it on speaker. After a moment, her cell vibrated again, and she frowned.

“Fire,” she said. She flipped the phone shut. “Don’t know if that’s good or bad.”

“Range,” Akane whispered, before falling silent again. She was getting better, but this was obviously still far too many new people for her to feel comfortable with.

Ling nodded in assent. “They probably have longer range than the biters. Which means…” she paused. “…ah. I’m not sure.”

“It means this won’t be the turkey shoot it was last time,” I finished for her. “Depending on how smart they are, this may be more than we can handle. But the real problem is those singers the Princess mentioned. Do you see any?”

It took almost a minute for Kelly’s phone to vibrate again. “’I see some that could be singing,’” she recited. “’But I can’t tell for sure. They’re just standing around, and the screamers are ignoring them. Should I advance?’”

“No,” I said quickly. Maybe too quickly. “We don’t know enough. Hold position, but be prepared to take them out on my order.”

Derek frowned at me. “You’re worried about the singers.”

I nodded, not afraid to admit it. “We don’t have enough information. For all we know, the Princess was just babbling nonsense.”

“That’s unlikely,” Jarasax put in. “The fey are crazy, sure, but they’re not actively delusional.” He shrugged. “It’s probably some metaphor we don’t understand.”

Well, he’d know. The Blood-Doused Hunters were changelings, escaped fey-slaves experimented on by their deranged captors. They knew more about the fey than anyone else alive.

“We can’t just sit here and do nothing,” Derek decided quickly. “Kelly, take the retinue—and Adam—to another ‘scraper. Somewhere you have a good vantage point, but can’t hear the singers. Set your cells to record, too, just in case.” He flipped out his phone, doing as he suggested. The rest of us followed suit. “I’m guessing the rest of us are immune, but we’ll go in one by one, just in case. I’m on point. Everyone else, pattern Red.”

He headed off, and Akane waited a minute before following, ten yards behind. Ling shrugged and followed her.

I considered disobeying his implied order; I didn’t owe him anything, and I might be more useful with the retinue. But they were experienced soldiers who could take care of themselves. I had a feeling that these singers were going to be confusing enough if I saw them with my own eyes. If I tried to get a second-hand description, I’d never learn anything.

So I followed Ling, and heard the retinue splitting off to the right—away from the skyscraper Katherine had chosen. I resolutely focused on what was in front of me.

We dodged around more burning cars and eventually reached an impromptu road block made from a bunch of large trucks parked as close as possible. These were also abandoned, and also on fire. Clambering over the parts that weren’t burning, we finally came face to face with the horde.

A hundred yards away, barely able to see them, that was one thing. Actually being in the thick of them…that was another entirely.

Their screams were deafening at this range; I clapped my hands over my ears, and even Derek had to resort to hand signals, though they didn’t react as violently as me. After a moment, I began to get used to the massive background noise, and lowered my hands.

There were more than last time; maybe a thousand, crowding around the intersection and crawling over wrecked cars like so many ants. They didn’t pay any mind to the flames, making it obvious they had some form of heat resistance in addition to everything else, and threw themselves at the few redoubts of humanity left.

Best as I could tell, there were four, besides the main ‘sarian bulwark directly in front of us and across the street. Some of the larger shops, mostly the ones without large windows to break through, periodically spat hails of gunfire at the approaching zombies. They responded with actual fire, grabbing it up from nearby cars and tossed it like snowballs.

“We’ll have to split up,” Derek admitted resolutely. Saw that coming. “I’ll take far left. Akane, you take far right. Ling, other left. Laura, other right.” He gave me a level stare. “Don’t be afraid to fall back to the Necessarians.” He paused. “In fact, you should just do that. We’ll take point C after the others.”

I want to make this clear: I am an intelligent woman. I knew he had the right idea. Splitting up our forces in the first place was a bad idea, but a necessary one. Sending me off to fight was virtually a death sentence, however. My combat skills were sharply limited. Even with the new athletic enhancements my powers gave me, I wasn’t much, and I was pretty sure the screamers had that as part of their power sets as well, so that was hardly an advantage.

But I don’t like being doubted, especially not by Derek Huntsman.

I didn’t even bother saying anything, I just ran off, weaving through the horde and ignoring the cries of my companions.

Apparently the screamers were more surprised than my comrades; it took them a moment to react. But I noticed instantly when they did: Flame swept towards me from all directions, most in the form of those fireballs I had seen earlier, but some came at me in great sheets, as if it was a living thing. I could taste the acrid smell of smoke, but I didn’t choke or cough. I’m not sure if that was because I was running so fast, or if it was another aspect of the package we hadn’t noticed. Either way, I made a mental note for later.

I just ran blindly ahead, dodging around the worst of it, heading for the old hardware store Derek had designated point C. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get around the barricade, at least not with a few hundred screamers trying to roast me, but a refrigerator that was blocking the way suddenly moved aside, revealing an entrance. I dove inside, and heard the fridge shoved back into place. I leaned against it and slid to the floor, breathing heavily. The smoke smell wasn’t as strong here, but it still leaked in.

“Honored Paladin, are you all right?”

I opened my eyes slowly to survey the survivors, about twenty in all, all armed. Most had pistols and other small arms, but a few of the bigger guys were lugging around nailguns, and the air compressors required to make them work. Probably weighed a hundred pounds each.

Most of them were baselines, but there were a few vampires, a demon or two, and a single ursa—the one who was talking to me.

He was a big melano, a panda kemo, and one of the first full anthros I’d seen up close, other than Katherine. They had only become feasible in the last few months or so, but this guy moved in his giant body with the grace of long practice. He was one of the ones with the nailguns, the compressor slung across his shirtless (but very furry) back. He was holding out his paw to me, and I took it, careful to avoid the claws, and pulled myself to my feet.

“Thank you, Honored Hunter,” I said carefully, returning his politeness. Melanos had a reputation as diplomats, and I didn’t want to offend him. I glanced around, frowning. “I thought this was ursa territory. Where are your packmates?”

He grunted. “Gone,” he said bluntly in a voice like crushed gravel. “Dead or screaming, I’m sure.” He gestured to the barricade. “They ran outside to fight the horde, claiming they wouldn’t let zombies stomp over their neighborhood. Most of them were melee fighters though, and if what the news said is true, that means they’ll just end up infecting themselves.”

“More than likely,” I agreed sadly. The ursas weren’t a true gang, of course; Butler made sure those were all dead and buried, although the Rahabs were putting up a fight. But subcultures often formed…militias, for lack of a better word, and as long as they didn’t break Necessarian law, they were allowed to do as they pleased.

“Have you seen—ah…” I paused. How do describe them? Something was tickling the back of my mind, distracting me from finding the words. That was it; the smell of smoke was getting stronger. I pushed it aside. “I haven’t seen them myself, so I’m not sure how to ask.”

The melano raised an eyebrow. “The singers, you mean?”

I blinked, surprised, and nodded.

“Yes, we’ve seen them. And to answer your next question, yes, their song makes screamers.” He patted his belt, and for the first time I noticed a bulky pair of headphones—identical to the pairs every other survivor had. “It’s hardly ideal, of course, but not being able to hear anything is better than turning into a zombie.”

“I agree completely,” I said with relish. “I was trying to think of a way to get around that problem, but I didn’t have time. Ah,” I paused as a thought occurred to me. “You did test it, right?”

He nodded. “Only way we could; singer came in, and we survived.” He turned to one of the vampires. “Drake, go fetch another pair for the paladin. They should be in the storeroom.” The man in question sped off.

That’s about when the barricade exploded.

It wasn’t the refrigerator, thankfully, but the stack of pipes to my left, thrown aside by a gout of roaring flame. I rolled to my right, but I couldn’t see anything through the smoke and flame. I heard the melano cursing, and I heard gunfire and a curious ‘thwip’ sound which I assumed was the nailguns.

I got a good look as the smoke blew aside for a moment; the survivors were hunkered down behind a secondary barricade, headphones on. They popped up every couple seconds to fire a few shots, then dropped down before a fireball flew towards their heads.

The area they were shooting at was so choked with smoke and blowing ash I had no idea what was going on. But every once in a while flame would rip out of the concealment, either in wild sheets or controlled bolts. And of course there was still the screaming, but it was so loud it didn’t help pin down the zombies’ location in the slightest.

I was off the the side, out of the line of fire (no pun intended), but the screamers would notice me sooner or later. I needed a place to hide.

But there was an entire horde outside, pouring in through the breach. There was no way they would stop as long as the hole in our defenses was open.

There was nothing I could do. There wasn’t anything I could use to plug the gap other than the fridge—which, even if I could move (doubtful), was already sealing one hole. The only thing that might work was bringing the ceiling down, but I didn’t have anything powerful enough to have a hope in that direction.

Unless…

It all depended on whether this building had a wood frame or not. Most structures in Domina didn’t, for about a thousand reasons, but some of the older ones did. The only question was whether this place just looked old or if it actually was.

I started kicking at one of the walls with the heel of my foot, trying to break through. After a moment, my suspicious were confirmed: My foot broke through the sheetrock, and rooting around inside I saw the wooden frame the store was built from.

Perfect.

Technically, at this point I just needed to wait for the screamers to finish the job for me. But every second I wasted increased the chances of more survivors dying, both here and at the other redoubts. So I dodged past the second barricade, diving deeper into the store.

I almost barreled into the young vampire the melano had sent for my headphones.

“Honored Paladin!” he exclaimed, clearly surprised. He fumbled for the headphones. “I’m sorry I took so long—”

“No time for that! We’re under attack!”

His jaw dropped, but he recovered quickly, moving to put his headphones on at the same time he reached for his pistol. Good lad, but I stopped him.

“I have a plan,” I explained to his questioning look. “How well do you know the store?”

“Pretty good,” he said slowly. “I started working here about a month ago.”

I nodded. “Good. Where are the hoses? If you sell squirt guns, that would be better.”

“Garden supplies, aisle—”

“Show me.”

He ran off, farther from the front, and I followed closely behind. When it came right down to it, this was a stupid plan, but weren’t they all?

Luck was with us; the store sold squirt guns after all. There weren’t many left—we were heading into winter—but I grabbed a couple of the bigger ones, and Drake did the same.

“Now, where’s your gasoline?”

He blinked. “What?”

“Gasoline! Lighter fluid! Something liquid and flammable!”

He sped off towards the camping department, and we grabbed a couple cans of lighter fluid. We busted them open—they had locks to keep people from siphoning them in the store, and we didn’t have time to find any keys—and filled the squirt guns.

“Okay, back to the front.” I ran off, lugging the suddenly much heavier guns, and he followed half a pace behind. He stopped for a moment, but I didn’t have time to turn, and he caught up anyway.

As expected, the fight was still raging, although now the acrid tinge of burned flesh was in the air. The defenders looked relatively unharmed, so the only other explanation was that the screamers lost their fireproofing upon death. Interesting.

But I didn’t have time to ponder; the smoke cloud was bigger than before, and the fire was coming more and more often. I took aim above the opening and unleashed a stream of lighter fluid at it.

As expected, the bigger guns did have more pressure; it reached its target easily, and quickly caught on fire. It petered out at the end, but I just tossed that near-empty gun into the knot of screamers (which I still couldn’t actually see) and used up my second gun.

I tossed that one away when it was empty as well, and turned to grab another gun from Drake. He had put on his headphones (smart lad) and he handed me the gun without question. I nodded, and we both fired against the same spot.

The roof—at least the part above the entrance the screamers had created—was unquestionably on fire now, and I waved for the vampire to fall back to the barricade. I searched around for a fire extinguisher and found it by the cash register before retreating back to the other defenders. It wouldn’t do to survive a zombie horde and then die because I lit the roof on fire.

It took about ten minutes, during which the fire on both sides of the bulwark never ceased, but I eventually began to hear the tortured groaning of weakening wood coming from the doorframe.

Another five minutes and the groans became more pained and more obvious. There was no mistaking it now; the roof was coming down.

I moved to where the defenders could see me (they were all still wearing their headphones) and indicated a retreat. I headed into the back first, to make sure it stayed a retreat rather than a panicked rout, and they followed close behind. After we had reached sufficiently deep in the store, and I had found a good chokepoint, I indicated they stop and set up, which they did without hesitation.

I heard the roof come down clearly, even at this distance. It sounded like the entire building was collapsing, and our little hallway shook noticeably. Dust—not ash, dust—billowed in from the corridor leading to the front, and the defenders paused in their preparations, concerned. The melano walked up to me, taking off his headphones, but I shook my head and indicated they stay put.

I advanced back to the front of the store slowly, my pistol out. I couldn’t hear any screamers nearby, but I had learned during the mission with the biters that our sixth sense wasn’t very reliable on pinpointing them with that degree of accuracy. Admittedly, I couldn’t hear any with my good old fashioned ears, either, which was a good sign, but it didn’t necessarily mean the way was clear.

As I crept closer, I began to hear something. It took me a few minutes to figure it out, as it became more clear with each passing moment. Eventually, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know what it was anymore. The words were meaningless, but it was still obvious.

There was a singer in the store.

I considered falling back, if only to grab those headphones, but decided against it. Someone had to figure out if we were immune, and if I didn’t risk it, Derek would. When it came right down to it, I was the least useful member of the team. Strategists were cheap; we still had no idea how to empower people.

But still, some precautions were needed. I spoke into my still-on cell phone, which I had left as a recording device. It would dump all its sensor data (mostly just sound) to one of MC’s caches.

“MC, I’m confronting a singer. If I turned into a screamer, stop the recording now.”

Properly prepared, I turned the corner into the entryway and found…

Well, first off, the room was half the size it had been just minutes before. Half the roof had come down, centered on where the doorframe had been, with likely more falling on the horde outside. A sloped pile of shifting rubble took up most of the space, with the rest filled with dust, spinning in the air.

And there, standing ankle-deep in broken chunks of sheetrock and not two feet from a piece of a wooden beam bigger than she was, was the singer.

She was beautiful, I’ll admit. She had that quiet, natural beauty so many people lack, to the point that even covered in a fine layer of dust and ash, rendering her skin and hair colors impossible to discern, she was still gorgeous.

She barely seemed to take note of my presence, preferring instead to sing. I’m not all that musical, but even I could tell it was a difficult song, straining her vocal range to the fullest. She chose mostly higher notes, but dipper deeper as well. There were lyrics too, but it wasn’t any language I recognized. I only spoke three languages, but I have familiarity with a dozen more. Her words didn’t ring any bells.

I was just wondering what to do when I heard a voice behind me. “How are you still sane?”

I turned to see the big melano and the other defenders, still wearing their headphones, staring at me. That was when I realized that he was right; assuming the song worked anywhere near as fast as touching blood or saliva, I should definitely have turned by now.

I just shrugged. I didn’t know what to say, and they wouldn’t have been able to hear me anyway.

“Oh, so it doesn’t make you crazy anymore?” a little black boy, no more than fifteen, said a little too loudly. He was in the middle of the crowd. “That’s good.” He took off his headphones.

“No!” I cried, diving forward. The survivors reacted similarly, crying out in alarm and training their weapons on him. The second he got his ear protection all the way off, a huge smile plastered itself on his face.

“It’s so…beautiful…” he whispered.

Huh. That was odd. I mean, the singer’s song was pretty, in a weird sort of way, but not the mind-numbingly beautiful he seemed to be experiencing.

Interesting.

Any scientific curiosity quickly was quickly drowned out when the boy started screaming, the same wordless, emotionless sound the other zombies made. The melano immediately tackled him to the ground, before anyone could shoot him, protecting him with his own body whether intentionally or not.

We had to get him off first. And we had to do it quickly. The burners didn’t bite very often, but he would eventually, and then we’d have two screamers in our midst. And if someone just shot the boy, his blood would still infect the melano.

The singer was still singing, completely oblivious. I swore loudly and shot her in the head.

I should be more specific: I raised my gun with one hand and tried to shoot her in the head. Even if she hadn’t dodged, I don’t think I would have hit her. Using a gun one-handed is hard enough for people who actually have training and experience.

But regardless, she did dodge, some self-preservation mechanism finally kicking in. She swept her hands forward, still singing, and some embers in the bits of wood in the pile of rubble glowed brighter. With a start, I realized she was trying to use the same powers as the current batch of screamers.

Interesting.

But I had the advantage: I had an 8-shot clip only missing one round. So I just gripped the gun with both hands, squared my shoulders, and emptied the magazine at her center of mass.

She dodged the first, but then one clipped her in the leg, and the next five got her good. She collapsed in a heap like a rag doll, the dust still spinning in the air from our brief fight. Finally, the singing stopped, and it was quiet, except for the screamers outside. I fell to my knees, breathing heavily.

Looking down, I watched a drop of sweat roll off my nose and hit the ground. It made a small explosion in the dust.

I breathed deeply, but my heart refused to slow down.

Something…

It was quiet.

Except for the screamers.

Outside.

I jumped up instantly and ran back to the survivors. They were staring down at the boy with utter astonishment.

He was alive, that much was clear. He was looking around, bewildered, and he wasn’t screaming.

“What happened?” I asked quickly, as I peeled the boy’s eyelid back. I didn’t have a light to do a full test, but his pupils seemed normal.

The melano answered. “It was when you killed the singer. He just…stopped screaming.”

The boy was still looking around; I grabbed his head and made him face me. “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?”

He swallowed. “I’m…Loga’ha’shanar of the Sky-Borne Lords,” he said slowly. “And this is the hardware store I came to, looking for a power screwdriver.”

Wonderful, another changeling. The Princess had clearly been active in this area. “Alright Loga, that’s good. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“I saw you facing the singer without headphones, Honored Paladin, so I took mine off. Then…” he frowned. “I…can’t remember what happened next.”

I nodded. “That’s fine. That’s very good.” I let him go and stood up, turning to the melano. “Take care of him, I need to make a call.”

I could barely keep it together, I was shaking so badly. A cure! Not for everyone, certainly, the singers would have to die, but that was far better than just killing everything. I pulled out my phone, turned off the recording function, and called MC.

“Priority one message for the real MC,” I said before the program had a chance to speak. “From Laura Medina, regarding the screamers.”

“Laura,” MC said within seconds, her voice as smooth as milk chocolate. “What’s going on?”

“I’ll explain later. I don’t have the retinue’s phone numbers. I need you to send them all a message: Kill the singers, all at once if possible, as soon as possible.”

There was a brief pause. “Done. I also put their numbers in your cell. Er…that okay?”

I chuckled briefly. “Yeah. Thanks.” I hung up, tired beyond belief.

That might be it. That might be the end. Oh, not quite, of course. We’d still need to hunt down the other singers whenever they reappeared, but we had a cure for the screamers. A better one than a bullet to the head. And it was possible…

My phone rang again. I picked it up; it was MC.

“They did it,” she reported. She didn’t say anything else.

“…and?” I asked slowly.

“And nothing. The singers are all dead, but the screamers didn’t go crazy or lose their specs. Was that your aim?”

I broke down crying.

Behind the Scenes (scene 17)

Note that the screamers here are not the same strain as the one the group first encountered. She was a pyrogenesist; she had the power to create fire, and a secondary power to give her a general idea of how it would act. The ones here are pyrokineticists, who can control fire. If they were powerful enough, they could rip heat out of thin air, but they’re not, so they’re limited to controlling open flames. The Composer was happy to provide.

Scene 16 – Periclum

PERICLUM

ADAM

Monday night, our last class. By a bit of luck, I had one with Derek. And Akane, as I had half expected. I had chosen a seat next to him, while she sat directly behind. I had a feeling they always sat like that.

The last few days were a blur. No new screamers, but MC had contacted me and sent me to a Necessarian shooting range. I spent pretty much every spare minute there; natural talent or not, I didn’t have enough experience with guns. I hadn’t had a chance to exchange more than a few words with Lily, but when I had seen her briefly, she seemed to understand.

As expected, classes were mind-numbingly boring. They probably wouldn’t have been interesting in the first place, but compared to guns and zombies, I was fighting to keep my eyes open. Although too much time at the shooting range probably didn’t help.

All day, people were discussing the screamers. Everyone had seen Butler’s announcement, and I was surprised how many people believed it—nearly everyone, really. Those who disagreed were treated with the same amount of scorn as people who thought the Apollo 11 mission was faked.

The general mood seemed to be apprehensive, but patient. In every class, the students agreed that we’d get more information in time. It was interesting to watch. I had never really seen a population react to a crisis first-hand; my parents were always quick to whisk me away when things went south.

But the current class, a history GE, didn’t even offer that reprieve. The teacher, a surly old dog—what were they called? Canes?—had made it clear from the beginning that he wouldn’t allow off-topic discussion.

On the other, hand, I finally got to meet Lizzy, Laura’s roommate.

She was tall, first off, and easy to approach. She had a guileless smile that invited friendship. She also had bewitching golden eyes and long brown hair that framed her face; it was easy to tell why Derek was smitten.

And he was smitten. That much was obvious. He couldn’t seem to take his eyes off her for more than ten seconds. For her part, Elizabeth answered his questions warmly, but she didn’t seem as interested in him. Akane pointedly ignored their interactions.

I was just giving up on taking notes and about to start browsing the internet when all three of them—Derek, Akane, and Lizzy—sat up and started looking around. I didn’t hear anything, and it didn’t look like anyone else in the class did either; the professor was still droning on without a care in the world.

I leaned over. “Screamers?” I whispered. Derek nodded. “Then we need to leave.” I glanced at Lizzy. “Should she—”

“No,” he whispered back. Elizabeth looked at us, a questioning frown on her face, but she couldn’t hear us. “She’s not getting involved in this.”

He stood up, packing his things, and Akane followed his example. She just had to pick up her sword, still in its bag, and tuck her notebook under her arm. Derek and I had to wrap up the power cords for our laptops and wrestle them into our backpacks. I also had to pick up my gun case; unlabeled, thankfully. I doubt even this city would turn a blind eye to me toting around enough firearms to arm a platoon.

“Excuse me,” the dog called out in an annoyed tone. I was surprised. I figured he wouldn’t even notice us leaving. “Is there something wrong with my lecture?”

“I’m sorry sir, it’s an emergency.” I noted that Derek hadn’t lied. I had a feeling he avoided it when possible.

The professor sighed and waved his hand, dismissing us. We left before he could change his mind.

Outside, the night was cold, but I had remembered a sweater this time. Laura and Ling met us quickly, from opposite directions.

“We’ll need to hurry,” Laura pointed out. “We’ll need to stash our stuff somewhere when we get there.”

“Actually, that won’t be a problem.”

I turned to see who had spoken.

To my surprise, it was a vampire, one with larger fangs than I had grown to expect and a strange device on her left arm. She was standing next to a parked black van with a red stripe painted horizontally across the side; the emblem of Necessarius, as it was. The door of the van slid open, and four more people tumbled out.

We couldn’t see them very clearly. “Who are you?” I asked with some trepidation. I had a bad feeling.

The vampire cursed and put on thick goggles. “Alex, light.”

The person closest to her began to glow, not brightly, but enough to illuminate the five. It was a woman, albeit a petite and gangly one, dressed in a white t-shirt to emphasize her swirling white tattoos. Those were the source of the glow, and they pulsed gently as she gave a small mock salute.

So this was an angel. Somehow I had expected something more. Her tattoos threw me off, too; I’ve seen phosphorus before, and it was nowhere near as bright as this. I had a feeling Derek was a bit misinformed on exactly how that worked.

“I’m Alex Gabriel,” she introduced herself. Her voice was unique, breathy and deep at the same time. I really didn’t know what to make of it. “Pleased to meet you.”

Next to her, an eight-foot tall giant grunted out “George,” which I assumed was his name. He didn’t have the force of presence Butler did, and his body proportions were a little off—his arms too long and his shoulders too wide. I assumed, then, that his extra mass was the result of a toy, probably an expensive one.

Next to George was what appeared to be an ordinary human, of some kind of Middle-Eastern ethnicity I couldn’t identify. He saluted with a machine gun. “I’m Jarasax of the Blood-Doused Hunters.” He jerked his head to the right, indicating the last person in line. “This is Katherine. Call her Kat.”

It wasn’t hard to tell where the woman earned her nickname. I had seen a few cat kemos running around, but her modifications were the most extensive. She seemed to have fur, an extremely thin, tawny coat. She was filing her claws at first, but when she heard her name she hid the file and retracted her claws.

Her face was the most interesting, however. It was clearly a cat’s face, complete with nose and whiskers. Her teeth were a bit oversized for a feline, and her eyes were jet black and wincing—now that I had experience, I could identify them as the nighteyes of the vampires. Her cat ears had replaced her human ones on the sides of her head, unlike some kemos who just added them on top. I doubt they would do much good up there.

She also held a very large sniper rifle, nearly as tall as she was, resting against her side, with the butt of the gun on the ground. She wasn’t very tall, admittedly, but a five foot long gun is still impressive.

Laura stepped forward. “Is that a railgun? I thought those were still in testing.”

Kat shook her head, and her hands flashed in a pattern I couldn’t decipher.

“She doesn’t talk,” Jarasax apologized. “But she says the railguns still aren’t reliable.” Her hands flashed again. “And that it’s nice to meet you.”

“And I’m Kelly,” the vampire finished in an annoyed tone, scratching the device on her arm. “We’re you’re retinue. Now get in the van and point us towards the zombies.”

It was a tight fit, especially with George and his massive minigun, but we made it. Like I said before, we didn’t have much other than laptops and weapons. Kelly promised she’d keep those in the van.

Derek and Laura provided Jarasax (who was driving) with directions. Akane was quiet as usual, and I couldn’t hear a damn thing, so I was little help. After a minute, Ling poked me gently in the ribs.

“You should get to know these guys,” she advised. “You’ll be fighting with them more than us.”

I frowned. “Just because I don’t have powers…”

She rolled her eyes. “Defense sticks with defense, and offense sticks with offense. We’re offense, we go in and fight. You’re defense, you make sure nothing bad happens. Our tactics are…” she waved her hand. “You know…self-contained. We’re all on the same team, we’re just playing different positions.”

She was right, I guess. But after a moment, I had a question. “Who’s goalie in this metaphor?”

She shrugged. “The truck, I guess?”

I shrugged right back. Worked for me.

Per Ling’s advice, I turned to the closest member of our retinue, the giant George. “So what’s your role here?”

He grinned, revealing enlarged canines, and patted his minigun. “To spread bullets like water.”

Well, nothing wrong with that. The cat was obvious too; even I knew you never turn down a sniper’s help. I was a little worried about the angel, though.

“Isn’t glowing in the dark a little…tame for what we’re facing?” I asked her, trying not to sound confrontational. She just laughed.

“I can do more than that,” she promised. “But I’m not combat, anyway. I’m a scout and tracker.”

“We have people who can literally hear these things from miles away.”

She shook her head. “The screamers, yes. But the Big Boss thinks someone is pulling their strings, and even if not, there’s always use for a tracker.” She clapped me on the shoulder. “I hear you’re good, but you don’t have a lot of experience. Stay with us, you’ll see.”

“We’re here,” Derek declared before I could respond. After a moment, the van pulled to an abrupt stop.

“This is as close as I can get,” Jarasax promised. “Give us a bit of a buffer.”

Now that I was paying attention, I could hear the distinctive screams, maybe a block off. There were a lot of them, mixed with the sound of gunfire and more traditional panicked yelling.

I opened my gun case, ready to head into the fight…which was when I realized I didn’t have a holster or anything. That would limit my options. I bit my lip, trying to decide which one to take.

Kat shoved something in my face. It took me a moment to realize it was a pair of belts, or rather a belt with two holsters for my pistol and SMG, and a back strap for the shotgun and rifle. The belt had a few packs on it where I could store ammo, and the chest thing—bandoleer, I think—had room for shotgun shells.

“Thanks,” I said. I was surprised, pleasantly so.

The sniper nodded, then her fingers moved quickly in a pattern I couldn’t discern.

I turned to George. “What’d she say?”

He shrugged. “Hell if I know. I only met her two days ago. Sax and Kelly are the only ones who understand her.”

Kat looked frustrated, but waved her hand when I leaned forward to ask the two. She mimed readying a weapon (hers was already done, apparently), mimicking the pair. The message was clear: It’s not important, don’t bother them.

Well, that was fine. I belted on the items in question and found they fit perfectly, though I pretty much expected it by that point. My Sica went on my right hip, the Caedes on my left, with the Saint George over my right shoulder and the Athena my left.

I’ll admit, I felt pretty badass by that point, and was ready to take on pretty much anything. The only thing missing was some armor, but the screamers didn’t seem to be able to use weapons anyway, so I wasn’t that worried.

Kelly was the last one out, carrying a short rifle without anything more complicated than iron sights. She handed Alex some sort of headset, which looked like night vision goggles. I remembered something about how angels had special eyes that saw great in the light, but horrible in the dark. I guess she couldn’t do the brightness thing all the time.

“Everyone ready?” Derek asked. We all nodded. “Good. Akane, you’re on point, I’ll be right behind you. Adam, stay close to me. Ling is behind the retinue, watching the rear. Laura, you’re in the middle. Kelly, keep her safe. Let’s move.”

I was impressed. Derek certainly seemed to know what he was doing. Judging from a few things he had said in the past few days, I understood that he and Akane had been taking missions from the job board for years, so I suppose he got practice. It also explained some of why she followed his orders so unquestioningly, but it still didn’t quite sit right with me. But, people grow pretty close after fighting together for years, so maybe there wasn’t anything else to it.

We advanced slowly, ten people a bit too big a group to move with both stealth and speed. But we inched our way towards the screamers with certainty, sure we’d be ready.

We had only gone a little less than half a block—very close to where the screams were originating—when Akane held up her fist, signaling a stop. She pointed emphatically to a nearby wall, but didn’t say anything.

I looked where she was indicating, but only saw a weird piece of graffiti, written in glowing neon ink. It seemed to be a circle with wings.

The rest of the party, however, immediately started cursing violently.

“Calm down,” Derek ordered. “They might be an ally. What court is it?”

“You can’t reason with them,” Alex chided. Derek just glared at her.

“What court is it?”

“Night’s southern autumn,” Kelly replied. Hell if I knew what that meant.

Derek just rolled his eyes. “I know that. I mean what’s the name?”

“Killing Sparrow,” Akane whispered. She blushed when everyone turned to her.

Derek blanched. “That means—”

“Aw, did you finally figure it out? I was hoping to watch you fight.”

It was a female voice, coming from above. I looked up to see a naked Caucasian woman with short brown hair, maybe twenty-five years old, serenely sitting on the edge of the building, about ten feet above the neon symbol. With a small grunt of effort, she leaped down, about twenty feet, and landed without any sign of difficulty.

I wasn’t all that surprised—I had seen stranger things in the four days I had been in Domina—but every single member of our band, even Laura, looked ready to fight.

“Little Derek and Akane…so wonderful to see you again. Did you come to play? Or were you drawn here by that song?”

Kelly cursed and glanced at Derek. “You know her?”

He gulped, and nodded. “May I introduce the Princess of Killing Sparrow, the Maiden of Night’s Southern Autumn.”

The girl in question giggled, causing her breasts to jiggle distractingly. “That’s me!”

I looked around at the tense faces of my companions. “What is—”

Kat immediately made a chopping motion with one hand. Later. Got it. Message received.

“Honored Maiden,” Laura said carefully, bringing her hands away from her gun. “You said something about a song. Would you care to elaborate?”

The girl laughed, a melodic sound, and her chest shook. It was…distracting.

“So polite! Better than this one,” she sidled up to Akane, who was clearly making a conscious effort not to flinch away. “She killed me the second she saw me.”

I got within whisper range of Jarasax. “Is she insane?”

“Yes,” he whispered back without hesitation. “But not like you think. Talk later.”

I shut up. I’d leave this to the people who seemed to know what was going on.

“It wasn’t the loss of the homunculus that upset me,” the girl mused aloud, sliding away from Akane again. “It was that they killed so many of my peataí.” She gave an exaggerated sigh. “But I forgave them, in the end.” She grinned like a madman, revealing teeth like a shark. Looking closer, she also had vampire eyes. “It was soo much fun to watch.”

“The song, Honored Princess,” Laura reminded her gently.

“The amhránaithe are smart,” the girl continued. I wasn’t really sure whether she was answering Laura’s question or not. “They’re looking for me, you know. But those aren’t the ones you’re looking for, is it? No, you’re here for the caointhe.” She grinned widely. “You can hear them, can’t you? Their screams?”

“Why are the amhránaithe looking for you?” Laura prodded. Everyone else was keeping very quiet, though I noticed their hands stayed near their weapons. I decided to follow their example.

The girl just looked at Laura like she was an idiot. “So they can sing to me, of course. And then I will spread the song farther than they could hope.” She tapped her lip, thinking. “You know, I might go looking for one of them. The song does sound interesting.”

“Honored Princess, please, I don’t understand. What is this song you are talking about? Why would you spread it?”

The naked girl gave a great heaving sigh (emphasis on the heaving), as though talking to a troublesome child. “The amhránaithe sing, and anyone who hears them becomes a caoin. But the caointhe only have a flawed understanding of the song, which is why they scream. It’s also why their powers are weaker.”

That brought us all to attention. She was talking about the screamers the entire time? I stepped forward. “What else can you tell us?”

The girl turned to me, her shark-grin wide again, while Laura glared at me from behind her back.

“Well, what do we have here? A new leanbh, untested and untried?” She glanced at my shotgun. “You have at least some congress with Necessarius, I see. Their Saint rides at your shoulder.” Apparently she didn’t realize the retinue were ‘sarians. None of them were wearing their red and black armbands.

“Please, Honored Princess,” Laura said in an apologetic tone, trying to steer the conversation back on track. “That one belongs to Lily.”

The girl’s head snapped around, and her face contorted with rage.

“Lily? Lily? That diabhalta gadaí has already sunk her salach crúba into this one as well? Beidh mé a mharú, gearrtha a géag ó géag.” She looked at me, murder in her eyes. “Beidh mé ag tosú leis an gceann seo.”

She leaped forward, her jaw opened wider than I could have believed possible. But I was ready; I whipped out my pistol quickly and shot her three times in the chest. She staggered, but didn’t fall. I took the opportunity to take careful aim at her forehead, and pulled the trigger again. My Sica barked, and a large chunk of her skull evaporated.

By the time she hit the ground, only Akane had managed to get her weapon out. Everyone else was still fumbling, and Kat nodded in appreciation of my skills. I better be good; I had spent seventy of the last seventy-two hours at a shooting range.

“What language was she speaking, anyway?” I asked. It seemed like a stupid question, but I had so many I didn’t know where to start.

“Irish,” Jarasax answered. Kat’s fingers made a sign. “Bad Irish,” he corrected.

“…why would she be speaking Irish?”

“Because she’s crazy,” Derek replied. “She thinks she’s a faerie from Celtic mythology.”

“Thought,” I corrected reflexively.

“No, thinks. She’s not dead.”

I looked carefully at the naked corpse. It wasn’t breathing. “She sure looks dead.”

He sighed. “It’s a little complicated. She has these things called homunculi, they’re like remote-piloted clones. All the fey have them.”

I blinked. “Fey?”

If Derek was planning to dignify that with a response, I didn’t hear it. Kat’s rifle barked loudly, nearly shattering my eardrums. I turned to see her target; it was a giant dog, about the size of a Great Dane but with the muscle of a pit bull. Despite taking a shot to the skull, it was still moving. Kat fired again, and this time the thing’s head exploded.

“That would be her peataí,” Derek cursed. “More monsters will be coming.”

Everyone had their guns out now, even Laura. She glared at Derek.

“She’s not going to be forgiving this time. What’s up with her and Lily?”

“Silver and gold–hell if I know.” He hemmed in another dog with a barrier; I shot it twice while it was distracted by the sudden appearance of a glowing blue shield.

More started coming, from all directions except to the left, down an alley. Unfortunately, that was pretty much the only direction we didn’t need to go.

A lot of the monsters were various breeds of dog, but there were giant rats and even horribly misshapen humans scattered through as well. All of them were heavily modified, and they all had the solid black eyes of a vampire.

We formed a defensive formation at the mouth of the alley. Right now, there were only a few dozen of the things, and careful shots killed the leaders as they crept forward. But more were coming with every minute. I had a feeling that they were waiting for enough before swarming us.

Wonderful.

Behind the Scenes (scene 16)

Any and all inconsistencies with the Irish grammar shall henceforth be answered by “The fey are crazy, and not actually Irish.”

Oh, and cat kemos are called fels. George is actually an ogre, a giant with the cannibalism buff.