Scene 94 – Homines et Monstra

HOMINES ET MONSTRA

SEENA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We just have to exploit its weaknesses.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

He looked thoughtful. “Like ice cold?”

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

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

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

Everyone stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And me, obviously,” Adam added.

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

“Me too,” Jelena volunteered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Eric.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Looking for something to stop those gargants outside.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 94)

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

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

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Scene 93 – Expertus

EXPERTUS

SIMON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “You’re dating Laura?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed. “Let’s just drop it, okay?”

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

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

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

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

“Can’t say I know them.”

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

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

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

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

“Pacifism?”

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

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

Yolanda cocked her head questioningly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a gargant.

A massive one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dae blinked. “Wait, what?”

“Run until you can contact MC. Quickly.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kat?” I asked after a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iron-lord gargants, however, could.

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

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

This was far more than a giant ape.

Its flesh was iron.

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

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

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

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

“Wait—Seena?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man wiggled his hand back and forth. Ish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing left to do but pray.

Behind the Scenes (scene 93)

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

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

Scene 87 – Invidentia

INVIDENTIA

SEENA

“So,” I said, glaring at the blonde demon as she stumbled out of my brother’s room a few hours after lunch. “You’re a succubus.”

Yolanda turned bright red. “Th-that’s none of your concern…”

“Uh-huh. How many people were involved?”

She blinked. “What?”

I met her gaze levelly. She turned away.

After a second she blushed even more deeply, if that were possible, as she realized exactly what I meant. “OH! Just, uh, the two of us.”

I had my daygoggles off; the corridor was dark enough that while it was still uncomfortably bright for me, my nightvision was useful.

Yolanda didn’t look like a succubus, that was for certain. She looked like a demure flower without any experience in men or related areas. But my sources didn’t lie. I was still a Mal, after all. I just hadn’t seen the need to mention it to anyone until my stupid brother kissed her.

“Miss McDowell, I don’t know what pheromones or whatever you’ve got…”

Her eyes snapped up and met my own. “That’s not fair, Seena. Don’t throw the rest of us in with Malcanthet. Most of us believe very strongly in not using methods like that. Velvet hell, the kind of things we’ve had to go through because of her…”

I raised an eyebrow. “I notice you didn’t get insulted when I accused you of polyamory.”

She fidgeted with one of the buttons of the over-sized shirt she was wearing; with a bit of a start, I realized it was one of Simon’s. Maybe she wasn’t sneaking out on him after all.

“It’s just…” she shuffled her feet. “You see, we believe that everyone needs love, and love can conquer all, and—”

“I don’t need the sales pitch,” I interrupted. “I get the picture. I’m willing to assume you have my brother’s best interests at heart.”

She smiled weakly. “Thank you.”

“Of course, I’m not the only one you have to worry about. Jelena is angry at you for muscling into her territory.”

The demon frowned. “Wait, I thought she was a lesbian.”

I shrugged. “Well, I’m pretty sure she’s joking. But Pam really was interested in him; once she finds out about this she’s gonna be pissed.”

She brushed her golden hair back from her horns. “Velvet…she might actually kill me.”

“It’s probably not that bad. Pam’s caustic, but there’s kindness hidden below that.” I paused. “Deep below.” I bit my lip. “Okay, so I haven’t actually seen it, but I’m sure it’s there.”

She didn’t seem exactly encouraged. “I don’t think this is the kind of situation that will bring it out.”

“Yeah…just let me talk to her first, okay?” Honestly, I shouldn’t have told Yolanda about Pam’s crush. I was still surprised she had even told me.

The demon smiled a little. “No worries there, I promise.” She coughed. “Ah…can I get past you? I need to go to the bathroom.”

“Of course.” I stepped aside, and she rushed past quickly to the women’s restroom at the other end of the hall.

Now that I was reasonably certain Yolanda wasn’t going to try and slit my brother’s throat in his sleep, I had to attend to the other half of the problem. I slipped my daygoggles back on, took a deep breath, and knocked on 1312 three times.

“Yolanda?” my brother called. “That you? The door’s open.”

“It’s Seena,” I said gruffly. I didn’t open the door.

Wisely, judging by the sounds I could hear. He seemed to be rushing around the room, putting on his clothes. After a few minutes, I heard a weak “Come in.”

It wasn’t as bad as I had expected. The windows were open (proving my use of the daygoggles), and other than his bed being rumpled, the room was mostly the same as ever. A bit of junk strewn around, but it was the dorm room of three college boys. The only thing out of place was the small pile of cloth next to Simon’s bed; judging by the pink I could see poking out from under the jeans, it was Yolanda’s cast-off clothing, hastily retrieved from wherever it had been flung earlier.

“Seena,” the purple sibriex greeted me from where he sat primly on his bed. “What a wonderful surprise. What’s up?”

I didn’t bother with small talk. “She’s a succubus, Simon.”

He met my gaze evenly. “She did mention that, yes.”

“People are still sore about Malcanthet.”

His eyes didn’t waver. “She’s not Malcanthet, now is she?”

I frowned. “Dammit, you know what I mean. Why do you think she was hiding it? Word gets out that you’re dating a luster, you’re gonna be fending off assassins left and right.”

“I’ve survived assassins before.”

I snorted and leaned against the door frame. “That did not count. She thought you were someone else, and was expecting to fight a vampire.”

He waved his hand. “Fine. Discount that. More importantly, if anyone sends an assassin against her, they’ll go through the Mals, right? And you can talk them out of the contract.”

I opened my mouth to retort…then stopped. It was actually a pretty good point.

The bastard grinned, knowing he had me. “In fact, maybe you should just talk to them first, make sure there are no misunderstandings…”

I walked over and sat next to him with a sigh. “Simon, you can’t just—”

“Can’t what?” His face was hard again. “We’re not hurting anyone, you know that. I remember you giving me a very long lecture on that subject last time I tried to interfere in one of your relationships.”

I groaned and flopped backwards onto the bed. “Do not bring that up again, please…”

“I wasn’t going to,” he said quickly. A little too quickly. Normally he liked rubbing my nose in stuff like that. Why would he…

Bah. I was overthinking it. He probably just didn’t want to get on my bad side.

There was a dainty knock on the door. Yolanda, unquestionably. Simon frowned down at me. “Are we going to be okay? If you really don’t want me to date her, I’ll break it off right now.”

“No.” I straightened into a sitting position. “By the Black Gates, no. I’m worried about you, but it’s not your fault or hers. You two shouldn’t be punished for it.”

He grinned. “Good. ‘Cuz I wasn’t gonna break up with her anyway.”

I cursed and grabbed for him. “You little weasel, I’m gonna—”

He jumped out of my grasp, still grinning from ear to ear, and rushed over to the door before I had a chance to do anything else. As expected, when he yanked it open, Yolanda was standing there.

The demon looked a little bewildered at our antics. “Ah…is this a bad time?”

“Not at all,” Simon said, a little breathlessly. He stood aside. “C’mon in.”

She brushed back him a little too quickly. “I’ll…just get my clothes. I’m sure you two need to talk…”

“We’re done talking,” I promised. “It’s your turn now.”

She blinked. “What?”

“You barely ever talk around everyone else. I feel like I don’t know anything about you. Tell me something.” I waved my hand. “Like…what’s your favorite class this semester?”

The succubus sat down on the bed next to me a little reluctantly. “Ah…Applied Firearms, I’d say. I’m taking it every Friday. I’m doing really well, actually.”

“Is that one of the classes your uncle asked you to take?” Simon put in.

She shook her head vehemently. “No, I wanted to take it. I love guns. My dad had a gun shop when I was a kid.” She smiled a little sadly. “He always said I’d inherit it one day.”

I knew an orphan’s story when I heard one. “How’d he die?”

To my surprise, Yolanda rolled her eyes. “Mom blew up the workshop while they were inside.” She shook her head. “It was attached to the warehouse. Most of our product—and my inheritance—went up in smokes, but at least only two people died.”

Although she wasn’t at the angst and tears portion of the story yet, Simon and I both knew from experience that these always ended up there sooner or later. He quite wisely stepped in to steer the conversation back on track. “You never mentioned if there was anyone in the Applied Firearms class you were getting friendly with.”

She brightened. “Oh, yeah! There’s a baseline from outside the city, Adam. He’s fifth in the class, even though he never fired a gun before he got to Domina.”

“What about you?”

The demon cocked her head. “What about me?”

I smiled a little. “I mean, what place are you?”

“Oh! Third. Second is Merrevian of the Hereafter Notes, and first is an angel named Hoshea.”

Simon winced. “Ugh. He’s probably fun to be around.”

His girlfriend—Nine Hells, I’d have to get used to that—rolled her eyes. “Oh, its not that bad. I mean, he’s a little preachy about everything, but they’re getting better, really. There’s actually a vampire in our class, and they haven’t tried to kill each other even once.”

Simon sat down on the bed between us, forcing us to scoot apart to make room. “Wait, what time is your class?”

“Ten hundred hours. The drake has to wear daygoggles.”

His face scrunched up. “Huh. I would have thought he’d just get a night class.”

She shrugged. “I dunno. I think he wanted to learn how to shoot even when he was at a disadvantage.”

I had to lean over to see her past my brother. “How is he?”

She grinned. “Bad. Seriously bad. I’m not sure he can even see three feet in front of his face.”

We all laughed, and talked about school and so on for a while longer. When I left the two lovebirds alone a few hours later, I was beginning to accept that the succubus might not be as bad an influence as I thought.

Yolanda had earned a chance, but only one. I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to my brother.

Behind the Scenes (scene 87)

Succubi (and their male counterparts, the incubi) are actually still a pretty strong subculture…but they hide that as much as humanly possible. Malcanthet made a lot of enemies, and not just for herself. Seena is not exaggerating when she fears for their lives.

Scene 86 – Electus

ELECTUS

SIMON

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

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

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

Unfortunately, she’d also brought Jelena.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed and put my face in my hands.

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

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

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cherve shut her mouth quickly.

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

Seena sipped at my drink. “Were?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I pulled her close and kissed her.

Behind the Scenes (86)

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

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

Scene 85 – Iacet

IACET

KEVIN

My name is Kevin Irwin.

I am a Jotuun spy.

I don’t have any buffs or cosmos, but that’s the point. It wouldn’t be very subtle if I was three feet taller than everyone else. Passer is the common term, but I hate it. It implies I’m an assassin.

I was in my dorm room, with a depressed Simon and jolly (as usual) Steve. I had difficulty paying attention to Steve; despite his height, he was just baseline, and years of training forced me to memorize Simon’s every word, since he was the enemy.

Well, enemy was a bit strong. He wasn’t a Jotuun, and thus a potential threat. I was ordered to observe his movements—and those of his sister—but nothing more.

“Let me get this straight,” Steve said with a slow chuckle. “Your culture has some weird monster thing watching over your servers.”

“Correct,” Simon confirmed, sitting on his bed calmly. I was perched on my own mattress, the top bunk bed, where I got a good vantage of everything. Steve’s bed was under mine, but he was standing by the window.

“This creature didn’t know about the screamers or the Composer or anything.”

“Right. He seemed to be on bad terms with the Power.”

“Right, right…and he was scared of MC and the Servants for some reason.”

“I think he was just paranoid.”

Steve was smiling at some private joke. “Whatever. The point is…you agreed to talk to MC on his behalf. Quiz her on how far the ‘sarian research is coming, all that.”

“That’s about the size of it,” our sibriex roommate admitted calmly. He took a sip of his drink, as though we weren’t discussing anything more important than sports.

Steve laughed and rubbed his forehead. “Kevin, help me out here. Explain what an idiot he’s being.”

I shrugged nonchalantly, doing my best to quell my pounding heart. This was the most important discovery I had made since I found out Simon was working with a fey. If he used the same laptop for his interviews, the bug I’d planted would turn out to be completely invaluable.

“I don’t think its really that big a deal,” I lied smoothly. “Every culture has secrets. His talks.”

The large black man frowned, a rare sight. “No, I don’t mean about telling us about it. I mean the fact that he’s trying to screw over MC.”

“Hey, I’m not screwing her over!”

“Steve has a point,” I admonished. “Letting someone listen in on your conversation without telling her will be a breach of trust. You should consider just telling her.”

“Somehow, I don’t think Aramazd will appreciate that.”

“Hey don’t worry!” Steve said, slapping our roommate on the back jovially. “You said he was completely cut off from the outside world. He has to work with you.”

“Besides, it’s not like you have to tell MC you’re working with…” I waved my hand. “An abomination. If she would even consider him that. Just say he doesn’t get enough contact with people to feel comfortable talking to her.” I shrugged. “It’s true enough, right?”

Simon rubbed his forehead, finally showing some consternation at what was coming. “I really don’t want to trick MC at all. I mean, its MC.”

I snorted. “Five minutes ago you were willing to lie outright. Now a little bit of subterfuge is out of the question?”

“That’s different,” he insisted. “That was me fulfilling a promise.”

I shrugged. “You can make distinctions like that if you want. Doesn’t change what you’re doing.”

He threw up his hands. “So, what? I have a choice between screwing over someone who hasn’t seen another living soul in a month, or the most important woman in Domina?”

“Or just talk to the monster again,” Steve suggested as he sat down on his own bed. “Just explain that you don’t feel comfortable messing with MC.”

“Somehow I don’t think it will be that simple.”

I sighed again. “You have your choices laid out in front of you, Simon. Pick one, and accept the consequences.”

The purple sibriex nodded. “You know what? You’re right. I’m going to tell Aramazd it’s off.”

That was about when I realized that I was in the middle of convincing him to turn down a priceless espionage opportunity.

I sat bolt upright on my bed. “Wait, you can’t do that!”

Simon stared. “Wait, what? You just said—”

“I know what I said,” I snapped. “Look, your ‘rex buddy wants to discuss things with MC, right?”

He nodded slowly.

“And MC like debating with intelligent people, right?”

“Well, obviously, but…”

“So you just have to convince both of them its in their best interests to work together.” I shrugged. “Take the third option.”

He put his face in his hands. “Okay, okay. That’s…that actually makes sense.” He shook his head. “But leaving aside your schizo behavior, I really don’t think it will be that easy. Aramazd is really paranoid.”

I really needed to keep him from thinking about my actions. “Well, you only met him once, right?”

He frowned. “No. Didn’t I…no, I forgot to tell you. I met him last Friday. Talked to him a couple times since then, tried to work out a better solution. Didn’t work. He’s definitely scared of what MC will do to him.”

I heard Steve giggle. “But c’mon. It’s MC. What’s she gonna do? Cut off his cell service?”

I smiled grimly. “If you think that’s the worst she can do, I invite you to see what happens if you piss her off.”

Steve laughed, and I heard rustling from his bed. Judging from Simon’s reaction, he was gearing up for a full-blown argument.

“Settle down, guys,” he advised. “I’ll figure something out.” He bit his lip. “I’ll talk to Jelena. She’s good at politics.”

“Yeah, but she’s a spy for the fey now, right?”

“True. Even though no one has the heart to tell her.” The sibriex frowned at me. “Wait, how’d you know that?”

Inwardly, I cursed at my own stupidity, but I kept my calm and just shrugged nonchalantly as I quickly came up with a believable lie. “You mentioned it earlier.”

Simon waved his hand. “Whatever. You’re right, she’s out. I guess I’ll have to deal with it myself.”

“The ferret girl might be helpful,” Steve noted, snapping his fingers as he thought of the idea. “The one rooming with Delphie.”

Our roommate cocked his head. “You mean Zusa? She didn’t strike me as the type to have any experience in this area.”

“Well, she’s the friendliest of the bunch. Might be able to give you a little advice.”

“Better than you two, at least,” Simon muttered. “At least she’s sane enough to not do a complete 180 halfway through the conversation.”

“Don’t be so sure about that,” Steve cautioned with mock seriousness. “She is a woman.”

The sibriex sighed. “That makes one thing easy, at least.”

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s that?”

“I was considering bringing you guys along for advice when I talk to her.” He smiled grimly. “I’ve changed my mind.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 85)

Oof, this one…not the best. But it serves.

Scene 59 – Furtum

FURTUM

SIMON

The sibriex only had a single building to our name: Arhestanots, the Fleshworks. It’s right at the edge of South Middle, only a few blocks from both South-West Middle and South Central. It was pretty far from the domain of any other culture, which was a good thing. We might like playing with the toy maker, but that didn’t mean we were soldiers.

Arhestanots was a small skyscraper, only thirty stories. Our most sensitive data was secured on floor twenty-five, a floor without windows or any entrance except for one closely-watched door.

It was disturbing, really, how easy it was to break in. Obviously, I had an easier time than most due to my membership, but I had still managed to hack my way into our data center with nothing but a pad and some off-the-shelf virus programs. I couldn’t help but think it would have been much more difficult if we had even a single guard physically watching the door.

But I suppose it was a good thing it was so easy. It was Friday night. It was my last chance to steal the Helix for the Queen of Loveless, and the fey were not known for their leniency. And if there had been a guard…I don’t know what I would have done.

And I don’t want to know.

This wasn’t the first time I had done something stupid for my sister, but usually it was small things. Stealing candy when we were kids, that sort of thing. Not treason.

Well, it was too late to back out now.

I crept through the rows of servers, my breath creating little puffs of fog in front of my face. It wasn’t actually freezing, but it was pretty damn close, in order to keep the servers as cool as possible. I had never been here before, but I knew the layout well enough. Even a low-ranked member like myself had access to the blueprints.

When I reached the center of the room, however, I found out that not everything is on the blueprints.

There was…something in front of me. It was hard to tell in the dark, but nestled between three servers creating an open-faced box was a mass of pink flesh ten feet high and about five wide. It was covered in a thin sheen of sweat, and smelled terrible—at least the cold dulled it a bit. Sparse hair sprouted here and there, mostly on the thing’s rounded top, which was far too lumpy and misshapen to be called a head. The mound of flesh shrank back as I watched, then expanded again, then shrank back…

It was breathing. It was alive.

Then it’s eyes snapped open, and I jumped about three feet.

They were located almost dead-center in its chest, and as big as golf balls. They were a harsh silver, matching the fog and mist of the server room, and positioned just over what I now realized was a closed mouth.

Then the mouth opened, revealing a too-large tongue and broken, twisted teeth.

“Sibriex?” the mouth asked, in a deep, rumbling male voice.

I opened my mouth to speak…then closed it again. I couldn’t find the words.

“SIBRIEX?” the creature asked again, punctuating its demand with a turret that collapsed out of the ceiling and pointed itself at me.

“Yes!” I said, finally finding my wits. “Yes, yes, I am a sibriex.”

There was a long rush of air, which I slowly realized was a sigh.

“Never get to shoot anything,” the creature muttered. Then its eyes fixed on me again. “Password?”

I swallowed. “I’m sorry?”

Password,” it repeated, and the turret whirred as it prepared to fire. “Any real sibriex would know the password.”

“I’m new!” I insisted. “I don’t know any password!”

“It is the fourth thing sibriex are taught, imposter,” the fleshy beast hissed. “You would have learned it on your very first day.”

I blinked. Wait, the fourth thing I had been taught was…

“Never leave an experiment unattended, no matter how harmless it seems?”

That rush of air again, and the turret withdrew. “Correct.” He grumbled to himself. “Never get to shoot anything…”

“Uh, right,” I said a little anxiously. “Wh-who are you, exactly?” I had been about to say what, but had a feeling that wouldn’t have gone over too well.

The mouth laughed, spewing some fluid I didn’t want to identify all over my black sweatpants and sweater. “They still haven’t told you?” The mound of flesh quivered with amusement. “Narek said they were keeping me hidden, but I didn’t think he meant from our own culture.”

I blinked. Narek Nhang was the sibriex warlord…well, I use ‘warlord’ a bit loosely. More like CEO. He was far more interested in experimenting with the toy maker than politics and violence. Then again, that described most sibriex pretty well.

“I…don’t understand why he would hide you,” I said slowly. “From anyone, not just us.”

There was a long, long pause.

The fluid on my clothes slowly began to drip onto the floor.

“Frozen hells,” the creature finally muttered. “You’re serious. Are you an idiot?”

I frowned. “No need to be rude. I just don’t get it. However you were made, you’re clearly an impressive use of the toy maker. Why wouldn’t he want to show you off?”

“You kids have skewed priorities,” he grumbled. He was speaking easier now. I wondered if that was because he hadn’t spoken in so long and needed to warm up first, or if he had just been faking before. “What do you think the Servants would do if they discovered me?”

The Servants were…hard to categorize. Based in the Cathedral, they were the closest thing Domina City had to an organized religion. Sure, we had a few churches here and there to every major religion and quite a few minor ones, but none of them had really taken root. The Servants had grown from the city itself, and thus had a much stronger following. Even though most people thought their beliefs were a bit weird, they were highly respected for their humanitarian efforts.

But what would they do if they found a creature like this?

“Probably nothing, actually,” I said slowly. They just weren’t hostile in general. “I’m not sure why you’d think otherwise. Besides, they have a lot more on their plate than worrying about one slightly creepy experiment.”

The creature laughed again. “It’s cute that you think that. Haven’t you ever wondered—wait. What’s on their plate right now?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, they’re pretty involved with cleaning up after the screamers. They don’t really have time for much else.”

The mound of flesh shivered. “Screamers? That a new subculture or something?”

I blinked. Huh. “When’s the last time you talked to someone, or checked Fundie or anything?”

His eyes closed. “Ahh…not sure. Six months for the internet…about a month since I saw an actual person.” The mound of flesh quivered. “But that’s not so strange. I mostly just keep an eye on our servers here.”

I rubbed my hair back. “Right…I’m guessing you stay off the internet to stay out of MC’s sight.”

“Exactly,” he confirmed. “I don’t know what she’d do to me, and don’t particularly want to find out. However,” his tone turned serious again. “You’re avoiding the subject. What are these screamers you mentioned? Last I heard the Rahabs were the only gang that was still giving Necessarius trouble.”

I closed my eyes. “Superpowered zombies.”

He chuckled. “No, really.”

“Really,” I replied seriously. “I figured you wouldn’t believe me, but its the truth.”

“Uh-huh,” he deadpanned. “I’m sure—” He stopped talking suddenly. “That’s odd.”

“What is?”

“My scans indicate you’re telling the truth. That’s very…odd.” He quivered again. “Do me a favor—see that loose cable behind you?” I searched behind me and found an inch-thick cable next to a nearby server. “Yeah, that’s the one. Hook it up to that port there, would you?”

I did as the creature suggested, and heard the hum of another machine powering up. “That your internet connection?”

“Yeah…” he muttered, his eyes distant. He licked his…I’d like to say lips, but he didn’t really have them. He licked the area around his mouth with a too-long tongue. “One second, I’m just gonna—”

He stopped. Dead.

Crap, had I killed him? “Uh…dude? You alive?”

He gurgled wetly. I couldn’t tell if that was a confirmation or one last death throe.

“I’m gonna go find help,” I promised. Hell if I knew what I’d tell anyone to explain my presence, but I’d think of something.

But just before I ran off, he recovered. “No, no, I’m fine. Just…” He swore in a language I didn’t recognize. “Dzhokhk…need a minute to digest all this.”

I could relate. The entire city was still reeling a bit. Between the biters, the burners, the bats and the bleeders…it was a lot to take in.

He spoke up sooner than I expected. “Has anyone been able to determine where these powers come from? What they are, how they work?”

I shrugged. “By now, you probably know more than I do. All I know is that Doctor Clarke is working around the clock to figure that out, but he hasn’t reported any results.”

“I need to talk to MC,” he muttered. “Wonderful.”

“Uh, didn’t you just say—”

“Let me rephrase that: You need to talk to MC for me.”

I blinked. “Wait, how’s that work?”

“We’ll set up an anonymous server that I can look at. I might not be as good as her, but I can at least make sure she can’t detect me. Then, you ask her questions.” He grinned with that mouth too-full of teeth. “Simple.”

“That’s not what I meant. Why me? Surely there’s someone else better suited.”

He grunted in annoyance. “Did you miss the part where I haven’t seen anyone in a month? Nhang and I aren’t on good terms.” He quivered. “No, you’ll have to do. Tell me your e-mail address, and we can get down to business.”

I opened my mouth to complain—then quickly shut it again as a thought occurred to me. I could use him. He’d realize I was using him, of course, but this was still the perfect opportunity.

“I’ll do that,” I said slowly. “But first you have to do something for me.”

There was a short pause.

“This is the part where you tell me,” he said after a moment, annoyed.

I winced. Not the best start. “Right. I need a copy of our Helix. Without there being any trace it was copied.”

He licked his teeth. “Hm…simple enough. Of course there’s always the risk…I assume you have a flash drive ready?”

I almost said yes, but thought better of it. “No. I don’t have any with the spare space.”

“Good,” he said, quivering in what I thought was a nod. “I half expected you to try and upload a virus.”

That was my worry too, actually. I could imagine plenty of reasons the Queen of Loveless would want the record of the sibriexs’ experiments—but I could think of many more reasons why she would want the creature that kept an eye on our servers dead or incapacitated in some way.

One of the servers that made up his little nest spat out a flash drive, which I retrieved carefully.

“That has everything you need,” he promised. “Check it, if you like.”

I did, plugging it into my pad and scanning through it quickly. It was just text, which I was thankful for. My programming skills were sub-par, but it was harder to hide things in a pure text file. A quick glance was enough to tell me that it at least seemed in order.

I removed the drive, pocketed it, and bowed deeply. “Thank you very much. I look forward to working with you.”

“And now for your end,” he prompted. “Your screen name?”

“Obyrith576,” I replied without hesitation. “Spelled the normal way.”

“Hm, good,” he muttered. “Found it.” His eyes darted up to my face. “When’s the last time you updated your picture?”

I winced. Long before I got my skin and hair cosmos, that was for sure. “Maybe…a year?”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, this is clearly you. I’ll contact you soon and give you instructions for the interview.” His tone had a sense of finality to it, and I knew it was time to go.

But before I did, a thought occurred to me, and I turned back to him. “What’s your name, anyhow? You never said.”

He grinned, too many teeth shining in the dim lights of the servers. “Aramazd.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 59)

This took much longer than it had any right to.

Scene 41 – Post Nocte

POST NOCTE

DEREK

“We ran into Laura earlier today,” Simon said. “And that little blond Asian girl. It was an ‘L’ name…Li?”

“Ling,” I corrected. I settled into the couch at the cafe a little gingerly. I was still pretty badly injured; my wounds had only barely stopped bleeding, and Laura would kill me if she found out I was running around this soon. I was supposed to be in bed. “Ling Yu. She’s Chinese, and in AU on a scholarship.” I grimaced, both from my wounds and from trying to remember. “…soccer? Yeah, soccer.” When she got cornered, she fought like a soccer player. Lots of kicking.

He pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. “Well, she seemed nice enough. Only saw her for a second, though.”

I chuckled. “Next time you see her, be prepared for a discussion about anime. She’s majoring in animation.”

“Fair enough. I know ever since I chose my major, I’ve started spewing toy maker technobabble given half the chance.”

“Oh, you decided on that after all? You had it narrowed down to that and…something else. Something political, right?”

“Culture studies. But my Power offered me a scholarship, if I majored in the toy maker.” He shrugged. “Made it easy.”

I leaned back, smiling. “I imagine it did. You know Akane and I almost chose ours at random? Thankfully, they started offering Monster Study this year.”

“They didn’t have that before?”

“Not as a major. Just one or two classes.”

The demon shook his head. “I don’t know why your mom is so insistent you go, anyway. You guys are making great money already.”

“She never got to go to college, so she’s insistent I take the opportunity.” I indicated my injured body. “Besides, monster slaying is dangerous, and if I’m incapacitated, suddenly I’m not making any money.”

“Yeah, I understand, it’s just…” he shrugged again. “Our matron was never quite so insistent.”

A waitress sidled up. “Can I get you boys anything?”

“Croak,” Simon said, naming a soda.

“Water for me,” I added. “In a plastic cup, if possible. I’m afraid I might drop it.”

The girl nodded and sashayed off.

“That reminds me, Derek…” Simon said slowly. “How exactly did you get those injuries, anyway? I don’t think you mentioned.”

“I didn’t?” I thought I had. Oh well. My head still wasn’t working quite right. “Got in a fight with some Nosferatu.” I grinned a little weakly. “You should see the other guy.”

He blinked. “Wait, you mean last night? With the bats?”

I shrugged awkwardly and tried to answer without actually lying. “That area.”

He rubbed his hair back, wincing as he nearly sliced his hand open on his horns. “Nine hells. I heard that was a bad one. They brought down a skyscraper, right?”

“That was the Paladins. Containing everything.” I hadn’t been conscious for that part, obviously, but the girls—mostly Laura—had filled in the blanks.

He nodded. “Should have known. True Necessarian style. Destroy a few things so you don’t have to destroy everything.”

“That’s a little harsh.”

“Harsh? That was a compliment. Without them, everything would have gone to hell years ago, even discounting the cultures.”

I rubbed my face with my hand, embarrassed. “Sorry for snapping. I lost another friend last night.” I paused, then realized there was no harm in telling him. “She got turned, actually.”

“Oh, shit, I’m sorry. A friend of mine got turned into a burner—do you remember Paul? But yeah, I know how that is. You know Clarke a little, right? They any closer to a cure?”

How did he know—oh right, he knew I was friends with Clarke’s daughter. “Not that I know of. I’m pretty sure they haven’t even figured out what’s causing it. It’s not viral or anything like that.”

“You just hear the song and turn into a bat?” The demon shook his head. “Seriously, the world is getting weirder by the day.”

“This from the man who is purple.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

The waitress came back with our drinks. As I had requested, she delivered mine in a soft-shelled water bottle. As I nodded my thanks to her, I noticed a maintenance man walking in, setting up a ladder in the corner to service the speaker there.

As the waitress walked away, I turned my attention back to Simon. “They might be getting closer, though. Last night, Necessarius caught about five hundred bats. Plus the hundred burners and ten or so biters, that’s a nice, big sample pool.”

“Five hundred? Hells…how many dead?”

I thought about the question for a second. “Not a lot. Fifty, I think. No, less than that. Two dozen or so.”

He set his soda down in surprise. “Seriously? The blogs have been making it sound worse.”

“Well, the turned ones are effectively dead, so yeah, its pretty bad.”

“Oh, I know, I know, just…” he shrugged. “A couple hundred people died at the Battle of Shendilavri. Almost a thousand at Hathsin. That’s what you think when someone says there’s been a major battle. Fifty sounds more like what happened at Androlynne, or Minauros.”

I frowned. “There was a fight at Minauros? When did that happen?”

“No, that was my point.”

“What, that no one cares about Mammon enough to pick a fight with him?”

Simon looked at me sideways. “Derek, Mammon’s been missing for almost a year. Doresain stole Minauros from the Mammonites a few months ago.”

I snorted some water up my nose on accident, but managed to recover quickly. “You’re kidding.”

“Wish I was. The ghouls have gotten bolder because of it.” Doresain Gravetouched was king of the ghouls, though of course not all of them followed him. Still, generally the violent ones were willing to pay attention to him, if nothing more.

“Huh.” That explained why bounties on ghouls had gone up the last few months. I hadn’t thought much of it. But then I grinned. “You gotta admit, its funny. The Thieves’ Guild got its fortress stolen?”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, everyone has already heard all the jokes. You really need to pay more attention to politics.” The sibriex waved his hand dismissively. “Anyway, my point is that the screamers don’t really seem like a threat if we go by their actual kills.”

I took another sip of my water, contemplating. “Laura thinks the Composer has some master plan that makes this all make sense. Maybe one that doesn’t involve actually destroying the city.”

“What’s she basing that on?”

“Mostly? On the fact that the city is still here.”

He winced. “It’s really that bad?”

I wiggled my hand back and forth. “It’s…not good, by any means, but it could be much, much worse. Everything’s just so confusing.”

The demon leaned back in his chair. “And here I was hoping it was all fear-mongering and paranoia…” He frowned. “Where are you getting your info, anyway? You sure its legitimate?”

“Oh yes,” I assured him. “This is confirmed from high up in Necessarius. I’m absolutely certain its legitimate.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 41)

I really like how this one came out. Normally I have problems with pure dialogue scenes, but I think this one is perfect.

EDIT:  I just realized I had no link to the site’s RSS feed anywhere, so I added one on the right bar, under the “Blogroll” header.  Trying to find a more obvious place for it, but for now, there it is.