Scene 91 – Praeteritae

PRAETERITAE

KELLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The van was surrounded by Belians.

How had we not seen them walk up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He grimaced. “No. They’ll—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I scowled. “No games, Chamo.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My mother had a copy. But—”

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t need to.

“Fii încă.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prinde-l şi-l rupe în bucăţi.”

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose I was still a Belian after all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 91)

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

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Scene 76 – Servator

SERVATOR

KELLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 76)

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

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

Scene 71 – Cura

CURA

AKANE

I wasn’t worried. Not in the slightest.

The sleepers were…something to think about, but Laura had that all under control. That wasn’t our job, we were just here to make sure nothing went wrong.

No, the thing I wasn’t worried about was Flynn.

“You can’t just run off on your own like that,” Derek insisted. “There was an emergency and you were nowhere to be found.”

Ling tried to meet his gaze and failed. “I was busy helping a friend.”

“Doing what?” She tried to answer, but Derek just cut her off. “I don’t care. You should have answered your phone, explained the situation.”

She planted her feet firmly. “I’m not a ‘sarian, and I’m not Akane. I’m not a soldier, I didn’t volunteer for any of this.”

Flynn had already proven willing to follow friends into dangerous areas. The fact that today’s screamers were relatively harmless was nothing short of a miracle, but probably not one that would be repeated.

He shouldn’t be doing that. It didn’t matter that he could handle himself in a fight; he wasn’t immune to infection, so he was always at risk. That’s why we always went in first. Was it really so hard to understand?

“Sometimes you don’t get a choice,” Derek retorted. “You’ve been recruited. Stand up and do your duty.”

Ling snorted and shook her head. “Seriously? That’s the best you can come up with?”

I needed a way to keep him out of danger, but nothing was coming to mind. Flynn might not have the stupidly unconquerable heroic spirit Derek did, but he still wasn’t one to let others get hurt when he could stop it.

I glanced over at him. He was taking a nap in a small folding chair, his sword held close. Adam was doing the same, though he had managed to secure a slightly more comfortable seat. Both of them had been up for too long. The rest of us should probably be sleeping too (except for the retinue, but they don’t sleep), but…well, Ling and Derek were yelling at each other.

Derek sighed. “You’ve been fine the past few weeks. What changed all of a sudden?”

Ling started looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Nothing, really. I just don’t like being tied down.”

He noticed the discrepancy instantly. “You’ve also never been afraid to share what’s on your mind. What aren’t you telling me?”

“I…I…” she floundered for a minute or two, but then her expression shifted, almost scary fast. She grinned, and took a step closer. “I’m hiding several things from you.” She stepped directly into his reach and put her arms around him. “Which I’d be more than happy to…reveal.”

“This is no joking matter,” he insisted, frowning. “If you don’t give me a half-decent explanation, Butler’s going to ask for your security pass back.”

She sniffed and laid her head on his chest. “Like I care.”

Derek pushed her away. “You should care. What do you think will happen if Butler writes you off as a loss?”

The little delinquent shrugged. “I get a black mark in the Necessarius books. So what?”

Maybe I should talk with that Canian, Guland. He was Flynn’s roommate, after all, he might be willing to help a little. He was off in the cell block talking to the Romanian that got hypnotized, but he’d be back.

Even if I could get Guland on board, that still left the problem of getting Flynn to listen. I suppose I could ask Derek or Laura for help…

No. Out of the question. This wasn’t their concern. I needed to handle this on my own.

“A black mark from Necessarius is a little more than a ‘so what,’” Derek said with a snort. “You won’t be able to get a job with anyone respectable. Unless you’re planning to join up with the Nessians? The Satanists?”

Maybe that was the answer. Convince him to get a job, something that would tie him behind a desk for as long as this stupid zombie apocalypse was still going on. Not a literal desk job, of course. He had too much energy to stay sane doing that. Maybe training? He had said he liked kids, maybe he could act as an instructor for one of the Necessarius junior classes. They taught kenjutsu at that level, which he could definitely help with. I had started learning iaido at about that age, but I’m not sure if that’s normal curriculum.

Ling just huffed. “Of course not. But there are plenty of options. The Belians would take me. They’ve never had a good relationship with the ‘sarians. Then there’s the Jotuun, the goblins, and the angels. I’ve also got some friends in the aves.”

“The Belians are just a bunch of chem-heads,” Kelly said from the door without even turning around, scratching the skin around her fixer slightly. “Stay away from them.”

Ling waved her hand. “That’s still four good options for me.”

“The angels require a level of devotion far greater than Necessarius,” Alex pointed out. “If you chafe under Butler’s command, the Saints will be infinitely worse.”

She scowled. “Fine. The goblins and the aves are perfect.”

Derek shrugged. “Even if you’re willing to go through the extensive modification required—which I doubt—neither of them has much power. You’ll be trapped in dead-end jobs for the rest of your life. Didn’t you want to be a director? That will never happen with them.”

Ling grinned. “The aves might surprise you soon,” she said cryptically. But then her smile faded. “Of course, I probably wouldn’t look good with feathers…”

“That’s one reason,” Derek deadpanned. He rubbed his head again. “Look, if you can’t make it because there’s an emergency, that’s fine. You’re only human, and its not like these things are happening on a schedule. Just call and explain it as best you can.”

She threw up her hands. “And I don’t think I should have to. This is a voluntary outfit.”

Derek took a deep breath, and I could tell her was counting to ten. “I know. I am just asking you to extend some common courtesies. Let us know when we’re going to be a man down, and why.”

Alex had some pull with the teachers, right? He had mentioned something about his friend being a Necessarian Lucifer. I should ask him. Maybe he could get Flynn a job. Of course, I still needed to ask Flynn, but I’d wait for Guland to come back. Present a united front.

Ling shook her head again. “You military types and your rules. Whatever.” She turned to leave.

Derek blocked her way with a barrier.

She cursed as she bumped into it. “Derek, what the hell—”

Without the slightest sign of hesitation or anger showing on his face, he grabbed the small girl by the neck with one hand, lifted her up, and slammed her back against his still-glowing barrier. The rest of us all scrambled back, knocking over our chairs in our haste to get as far from what was about to happen as possible—while still staying close enough to watch.

“In combat,” he said calmly, as if nothing was amiss. “A lack of intelligence can get a lot of people killed. Something as simple as not knowing what kind of shops are in the area can mean the difference between life and death.”

Ling struggled, but she just wasn’t strong enough. She wasn’t wearing her armor, and she had to be touching stone in order to move it. She also couldn’t talk; Derek knew just how to press on the throat to prevent someone from speaking without killing them. It’s harder than it sounds.

“One of the biggest causes of casualties in combat is reinforcements,” he continued. “Either the enemy has backup you don’t know about, or you don’t have the backup you thought you did.” He gave Ling a level gaze. “So I’m sure you can see why you always need to know when one of your soldiers is otherwise engaged.”

Ling tried to meet his eyes, but broke the gaze after a few seconds. That wasn’t so shameful; there weren’t many people who could do better.

Derek dropped her as he let the shield fade into wisps of azure. She gasped, sucking in as much air as she could. After a moment she calmed down, but she didn’t rise from the floor.

“I’m glad we had this talk,” Derek said, and left without another word.

Just as our fearless leader stepped out, Guland stepped into the room with a plate of doughnuts in his arms. He looked around at us all quizzically. “What’d I miss?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 71)

Ling’s power is slightly different from other kineticists’, in that she has a limitation called a “control radius.” Basically, when she’s touching some sort of stone (it doesn’t have to be directly, but close), she can control any stone connected to it within a certain radius—currently, about ten feet. So, for example, if she’s standing on the street, she can mold the asphalt within ten feet of her, but she can’t do anything to the rock sitting on the mailbox three feet away.

This limitation is one of the reasons she started with so much power; it’s what gamers call “min-maxing.” Taking small, unimportant flaws in order to gain more benefits. Of course, these decisions were all subconscious, which is why the stupid anime fan ended up with a better build than the team genius (that would be Laura).

Scene 69 – Post

POST

ADAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s when I had a really stupid idea.

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

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

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

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

Probably.

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

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

Never hurts to be prepared.

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

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

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

“Drop the gun,” he ordered.

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

Drop the gun, ‘sarian.”

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

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

I blinked. “Wait, as in Senator—”

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

He cocked the gun with a loud click.

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

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

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

“The others, too.”

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

“Now what?”

“On your knees.”

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

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

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

“Fine. Whatever.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You sure?” Then I pulled the trigger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did a double take. “Wait, what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 69)

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Scene 66 – Cutis

CUTIS

DEREK

I woke up when the screaming started.

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

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

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

“Where’s—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the Aesir?” Adam asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura grimaced. “Who’s leading them?”

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

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

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

The giant pointed without saying a word.

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

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

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

I blinked. “Flynn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suit yourself. So what is the plan?”

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

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

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

“MC? You’ve got something for us?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I fired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The entire stairwell was on fire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Akane stared at me. “Don’t tell me—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, that makes it so much better.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I raised an eyebrow at her.

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

I blinked. “Enough to deflect bullets?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The lead Canian just shrugged.

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

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

“Uh…what?”

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

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

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

I cursed. “What’s Laura saying?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laura frowned. “All of them?”

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

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

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

“Just get ready to shield them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Filling quickly,” I replied. “Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then the sky fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I groaned as something else occurred to me.

We still didn’t know where Ling was.

 

Behind the Scenes (scene 66)

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

 

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

Scene 49 – Mercennarium

MERCENNARIUM

KELLY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George grinned. “With superpowers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Star Wars.”

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

“Now you’re just making stuff up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 49)

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

Scene 48 – Gigas

GIGAS

AKANE

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone nodded, and we headed forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sax blinked. “But…”

“Ate them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Metal plates.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kelly yelled something unprintable. “Scatter!”

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

And the gargant was coming around for another pass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t.

Adam, however, had a better plan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. Where had he been?

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

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

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

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

I sighed. Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 48)

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