Me: “I’M FIGHTING A DRAGON!!!! WHY AM I FIGHTING A DRAGON!!?!?”
ChrisM: “I don’t know, but whatever happened, I’m pretty sure you got yourself into that mess.”
THE DIGITAL WEB
Paul, Sophia, and I peer over the back of the netspider, watching the gently shimmering planetoid-sized internet-pocket rotate below us in the featureless black space.
“Is that…the entire internet around Perpenna?” I ask.
“No. I’m good, but I’m not that good,” Sophia says. “It’s mostly the US government cluster, some of the proxies the NSA uses around the world.”
I frown. “Are…they going to notice?”
“Eventually.” She smirks. “But they’re not that good.”
Paul turns to the multidimensional shape floating next to him. “Tesseract, what is the status of the anomaly?
The shape twists slowly. “I do not detect any anomalies,” Tesseract says in her calm voice.
(Everyone: “Computer, what is the nature of the universe?”)
“Sophia, is that,” he gestures to the giant sphere, “holding him?”
She checks her tablet. “It…seems to be, but I don’t know if we want to be here when we find out what its limits are. I suggest we go to the cairn.”
We stare a few moments longer, then slowly remember that there is another person on the spider with us: the mage, ignominiously dubbed “The Way Dude,” is still standing calmly behind us, watching the sphere with bemusement.
Paul turns to him and holds out a hand. “Afraid I didn’t catch your name, friend. Paul Stewart.”
The Way Dude makes a sweeping bow, rustling his beads and fringes. “I am a servant of all.”
“Ah…” Paul hesitates. “Excellent. Um…is there any chance we would happen to already be at the werewolf cairn in Golden Gate Park?”
The mage stands up and folds his hands in a prayer-position in front of him. “You are in all places at all times, if you understand the nature of place.”
Paul nods slowly. “I think I do….” he holds up a finger, “…and I don’t.”
The mage nods, beaming in a self-satisfied way. “That is The Way.”
(Jason: “I gotta admit, my version of The Way Dude is in no small part based on my freshman year RA.”
Me: “Oh, who was your RA?”
Jason: “I don’t remember his name. He was a Buddhist Studies major. He wasn’t as, like, surfer as this guy is, but he constantly had this zen attitude about him, talking about koans and shit.”
Me: “Ah. We just had Robin, who got us drunk and took us to the porn store.”
Jason: “Also good.”)
The Way Dude gestures at the darkness around us—vast and deep, but without the oppressing horror of other darknesses we’ve faced lately. “Why did you come…to everywhere?”
“I was always at everywhere,” Paul says.
“But you were not aware. You lived unaware of your nature, as being in all places. Have you seen the nature of all?”
Paul nods, considering his answer. “I’ve…seen more of it lately than I have in the past, and yet…I haven’t seen more of it than I already have.”
The Way Dude spreads his hands. “You have seen all that may be, and yet nothing, When you combine your experience and your understanding, there…between everything and nothing, you shall find…The Way.”
I, meanwhile, am watching all this with bewilderment bordering on distain. I glance over at Sophia…and see the exact same expression on her face. She meets my eyes and mouths, “What the fuck?” I answer with my best silent approximation of, “Fuck if I know. ”
“Where is it you believe yourself to be?” The Way Dude asks Paul.
Paul turns to the void around us. “I see blackness, but I see Golden Gate Park.”
The mage nods. “You see…and you see…but what do you seeeee?”
Paul is silent a moment. He looks at the massive sphere far below us, then to the twisting tesseract shape floating at his side. His face softens. “Light,” he says.
The Way Dude nods again. “Then, perhaps, you will find The Way.” He smiles…
…and then there is Light.
A blinding wash eclipses reality around us, brighter than anything any of us have experienced, yet somehow not driving us to panic. It holds for an endless moment, then slowly fades.
The world we see is filled with lights of its own, but seems dim compared to that pure brightness. We’re back on the Web, spiderrails lacing off in every direction, filled with the busy activity of the spiders themselves. Below us, though, we see a sprawling forest, unsurprisingly unlike a real-world forest. The limbs and leaves are made of glowing circuitry, branching up in fractal complexity, and spiders run through them like starry sprites.
We take quick inventory, making sure that all supplies and limbs are accounted for. The Way Dude, however, is gone.
We stare at the expanse. “Tom,” Paul says, “Do you feel that?”
I tense, looking around, “Feel what?”
“It’s enlightenment, man….”
I blink at him, then turn to Sophia. “Which way to the cairn, girl?”
She starts working with her tablet again. “Not far. Give me a minute here and I’ll download us….”
“Wait, hold on…” Paul tears himself out of his reverie and fumbles with his phone. “Group picture!!!” He pulls Sophia and I together, jumps in the middle, and holds his phone out for a selfie with the glowing forest in the background.
She glowers at Paul in that way only a teenager can and turns back to her tablet. “Don’t share that anywhere, I’ll know if you do…”
“Sophia, who was that guy?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” she mumbles, “But probably a Virtual Adept. A mage. They hang around on the Web. They usually look like some sort of Matrix-escapee, but they’re all pretty strange….”
“I gathered,” I grumble, shooting a glance at Paul.
“Well, they’re still mages, so whatever you do, don’t piss one off.”
I consider that, then sheepishly turn my body so that my magic computer-piercing sword is out of view.
(Chris: “What if Paul is a Virtual Adept who believes he is a vampire?
Jason: “He’s not.”
Chris: “But what if he was! How would you tell the difference?”
Jason: “If he was a powerful enough mage or a Marauder, you couldn’t. …No, you’d probably have to be a Marauder, for you to not tell the difference. …No, wait, even as a Marauder you could tell the difference by all the Paradox happening to people around him. No, he’d have to be like a super arch-mage.”
Chris: “So what you’re saying is, there’s a chance….”)
The forest extends below us as far as we can see, far larger than Golden Gate Park itself. Paul gestures to it. “Sophia, is there any harm if we go down there?”
“Um…honestly I’m not sure. I mean, no offense, but you’re, you know…” she shrugs, “…dead. I’m not sure how the Weaver spirits would react to that.”
Paul frowns, still staring at the forest. “The Weaver makes things?”
“The Weaver sort of…maintains things,” Sophia says, then sighs, voice dropping into sing-song rote cadence: “The Wild makes, the Weaver keeps, the Wyrm…” she glances at us, “…destroys.”
There are a few moments of silence, all three of us staring at the forest. Finally, I speak up, “If the Wyrm destroys, then…why are we immortal?”
Both of them turn to me, staring as if I had suddenly started spouting poetry. Sophia, though, takes my question seriously, and answers likewise: “So you can destroy more. The Wyrm…is out of balance. Thats why everything’s all fucked up. That’s why—no offense or anything—there are vampires in the first place.”
We consider that a moment, till Paul shrugs. “Meh. None taken. Apparently there are mages and werewolves too, so its a bigger world than I thought.”
“Yeah…it usually is.” She looks back at her tablet. “Anyway, this is going to feel a little weird…”
She hits a button…
….And then we are standing on Strawberry Hill.
A real-mountain-turned-artificial island, Strawberry Hill is now once-forested, twice-burned. The stumps and spikes of trees we saw last time are gone, leaving the hill a black bald-top in the middle of Stowe Lake. We stand buffeted by the drifting fog, damp ash swirling around us. Paul and I stare at the surroundings, bemused, but Sophia looks disturbed.
“Something wrong?” Paul asks.
“I haven’t been here since….” she trails off. Now that we’re back in the real world, she’s dropped back into the prosaic clothes she had when we left the island—thin hospital gown and my overlarge leather jacket. She shudders in the breeze and pulls the jacket closed.
(Me: “Oh, wait, so she’s not in the cool web-suit anymore?”
Jason: “No, she’s in the shit you put on her.”
Me: “Oooh, damn girl….”
Jason: “She just escaped being held hostage, what do you want from her!?”
Me: “Nothing! But we’re going to go shopping after this!”)
Paul and I trade a glance. “Do you know who the people were who blew it up the first time?” I ask.
She shakes her head, pulling the jacket tighter around her. “I don’t know. I was…with them….” I don’t need to ask who “they” were; memories of green fire flare across my mind just as vivid as they’re likely flaring across hers.
Paul frowns, staring across the park. The city lights surround us in the distance, but the brightest spot comes from within the park, from the museum concourse to the east. “Something Bell said made me think they were…the Prince’s security force, or something similar.”
Sophia shrugs. “The Gaians had a tacit truce with the Prince.”
“Yes,” Paul says, “But the Prince is missing, and has been for some time.”
Sophia nods, fiddling with the tablet in her hands. “Maybe it was this…Perpenna guy?”
“Wasn’t he…” I hesitate, “…downtown at the time?”
Paul shrugs. “Yeah, well we don’t know what his limits are. He did eat a…giant…Make-My-Arm-Come-Back Spider.”
“Pattern spider,” Sophia corrects, “And…he shouldn’t have been able to do that. No-one should be able to do that…unless they were a malfean or something….” She trails off again, staring over the skyline.
“Well, I don’t know what a malfean is, but Everton said he had been to some sort of Hell-dimension and seen Perpenna’s army,” Paul says. “Some sort of…demon army.”
“He’s also able to clone people at will,” I add, “Though by ‘people’ I mean ‘Clarence,’ so…take that as you will….”
Sophia stares at us, the remaining color on her face draining away. “So…you asked me what a malfean was? That…sounds awful similar….” She glances around before continuing. “I’ve never seen one, but…if a bane is the Wyrm’s soldier, and a Spiral Dancer or something is the Wyrm’s officers? The malfean’s are the generals. They’re…the Wyrm’s equivalent to that pattern spider. They’re…bad, bad news.”
Silence settles over us, broken only by the buffeting of the wind and the distant echoes of cars and sirens. Paul finally breaks us out of it with a sharp clap of his hands. “Well, that is spooky. So…what options do we have for getting back to my penthouse?”
Sophia, still looking shaken, shrugs. “You have a car?”
“Not here, I don’t want to summon a driver in my current state.”
I glance at him. “Why? For once you don’t look that injured.”
“No, but I am getting very hungry.” Paul meets my eyes. Understanding dawns on me and I nod. “If we’re going to call a car, Tom, I’ll need you to stake me.”
I nod, then my face falls. Stake…steak….
Oh my god…Aquilifer is still on the island—
I whip to the west, as if expecting a dark, winged shape to come soaring though the fog. “How much time has past since we left?” I gasp.
Sophia checks her tablet. “None.”
I nod, too stressed for the moment to question this. Okay…so hopefully nothing has happened, maybe we have enough time to figure out a way back out there, or maybe just get a boat and come close to it— Focusing on the details helps distract me from other thoughts, like the fact that the Rokea will probably kill us the moment we come near.
Or the things Marcus will do if he finds out I lost her….
“Tom,” Paul is saying, “Call Georgia, call Anstis, figure out what’s going on with everyone and tell them to meet at the penthouse. In the meantime, though…” he spreads his arms, “…stake me.”
Still staring to the west, I barely register what he says, but then something makes me turn. A sudden…change in the air, like a shift in the air pressure, but the fog continues to beat on as usual.
Something else changes, too: my level of sanity as Mr. Tail’s voice suddenly—after days, if not weeks of silence—reappears in my mind.
“He wants to plaaaay some mooooore,” the wheedling voice says. “Are we going to have fuuun?”
I turn to Paul. By the look in his eyes, he can hear it too. “Sophia,” Paul says cooly, “Can you move us through the Umbra? The little talking squirrel in our head is saying ominous things and usually he’s right.”
She stares at him. “We…we just left, I can’t sidestep yet, the Gauntlet needs to be dropped again.”
I look around, fingering my sword. “Do you sense anything, girl?”
“No, I don’t smell—“ She suddenly tenses, the concern on her face replaced with confusion, and then utter, abject terror. “No…no that’s imposs—“
Darkness starts to suddenly boil around us, pouring out of the trees and emanating from the ground.
“Now, now,” Paul says, holding a hand out. “It could be Marcus, this is the last place we saw him…”
“It’s not,” Sophia snaps, eyes wide. “It’s him. GO!!!”
We bolt, skipping the winding path in favor of crashing directly down the hillside, toward the lake and the nearest bridge.
“Head to the south!” I yell, “To the edge of the park! We need to get a car or something!”
“Will that stop him!?” Paul calls back.
“No!” I jump over a a charred log. “Nothing will stop him, Paul! Obviously!”
“Well then we should be headed away from other people!”
“Wait, wait!” Sophia stumbles onto the asphalt path at the bottom of the hill and stops. She turns to us, a new look on her face—cold dread. “…The museum.” She suddenly drops into wolf form and bolts to the east.
I stop. “Oooh, no, nonono—“
But it’s too late, she’s already crossing the bridge, Paul right behind her. I hesitate, risking a glance back up the hill.
Darkness is boiling out of the summit like a volcano, visible even against the dark sky and charred ground, pouring down the sides in winding, grasping tentacles. As it gets closer, I see the living plant life left on the hill withering before it, shriveling into browned husks before being absorbed into the abyssal depths.
Yep, rock and a hard place…. I take off after Paul and Sophia.
We run the winding paths of the park, angling in on the glowing beacon of the museum concourse, finally turning a corner and pounding down the middle of the road. The plaza is empty and deceptively peaceful, the fountains off, so our footfalls and Sophia’s panting echo across it like gunshots. I glance at the DeYoung, lurking like a battleship in the fog, remembering the last time I was here and my encounter with the strangely intense Mr. Charles Steinhart. I still don’t know what he was, but his warning was enough to make me swear off visiting the museums ever again, especially “his” museum, the California Academy of Sciences.
A.k.a., the museum that Sophia was now making a beeline toward.
The front of the building looms over us, a two-story glass temple to science. Sophia leaps up the front steps and shifts back to human, running up to the glass doors. Paul and I stagger up after her. I try the door first, finding it, naturally, locked. We peer in. The open space is lit softly by reflected light from the reef tanks and the ambient glow of the fog. A full-size skeletal mount of an adolescent Tyrannosaur stands in the foyer, leering at us through the glass, but there’s no sign of anyone living.
“Hello!” I cry, pounding on the door. The sound echoes across the glass and concrete of the building, both inside and out.
Inside, someone turns a corner, coming around the hulking dome of the planetarium. A security guard, pacing slowly along his rounds. “Hey!” we cry, knocking on the glass again and waving….
…But he continues calmly along, face peacefully blank, with no acknowledgement that we’re even there. We stare as he ambles off, disappearing toward the cafe. I frown, then turn to check behind us.
The dark cloud is here, boiling over and around the shell of the bandstand across the concourse. The decorative lights of the plaza disappear one by one and the ranked rows of mulberry trees shrivel and fall before it. Shadow tendrils race along the road, groping toward us.
“Right, yes, okay,” I grab my sword, clench it overhand in both fists, and shove it into the glass. Instantly, magnesium-bright light floods over us, near-blinding, as the sword hisses and sinks into the glass like a lightsaber. I hesitate a moment in awe.
Paul, too, is staring. “Tom, that’s an awesome sword….”
“Right?” I grunt, sliding it through the glass. I cut a giant circle out of the door and kick it in.
(Me: “Step 1, cut a hole in the glass….”)
The glass piece shatters across the concrete floor, but no alarms go off, nor does the guard come back. We climb through and run into the foyer, stopping underneath the Tyrannosaur.
“Now what, girl?” I ask, staring around. Sophia doesn’t answer. I turn and find her staring behind us, eyes wide. Dread climbing my spine, I turn too.
The wall of shadow washes up to the font of the building, instantly eclipsing the massive windows as if reality had just been sliced off. We stare, frozen like mice before a snake. It stops, roiling against the glass, then pulls back, clearing a space in front of the door…
…Revealing the humanoid figure of Perpenna.
He stands there, surrounded by shadow, calmly watching us, with his nondescript suit and mediterranean features. We stare back, the sense of being in front of a predator only increasing….
Finally he speaks, voice carrying silkily through the hole in the glass. “I offered you…anything you wanted…”
“Well you didn’t offer me that!” Paul snaps suddenly. Sophia and I turn to gape at him.
Perpenna’s gaze narrows slightly. “Be silent, dog.”
“No! I’m going to talk now, and I’m not—“ Suddenly Paul’s voice cuts out. His mouth continues to move, but no sound follows. Paul looks confused, then increasingly angry, shouting silently.
I…shoot Perpenna a pistol-hand. “I like that trick, sir.”
Perpenna turns, gaze boring through me with the same ease that my sword slid through the glass. “I offered you anything you wished, and you repay me with chaos and defiance.” He spreads his hands, glancing up at the wall of glass. “You think you hide from me here, with this…animal?”
I glance at Sophia. She’s pressed back against the stanchion of the fossil display, eyes wide and breathing shallowly. I move a step forward to block her from view.
Perpenna stares a moment at me—standing stoically with my ludicrously-bright sword—and Paul—mutely-shouting and gesticulating angrily—then shakes his head. “Such a waste,” he sighs, and spreads his arms wide.
The darkness boils forward, engulfing him, pouring through the hole like water through a sinking ship. We back away, but it rushes at us, faster than we could possibly run—
—Then a deep, grating noise echoes through the museum, reverberating off the glass and rumbling the floor like a low earthquake. The shadow stops, instantly frozen like a black glacier, then undulates slowly…uncertainly….
The noise comes again, louder, followed by a rasping, slithering noise, like something immense being moved. Something below. Another rumble follows, shuddering the fossil mount above us. The darkness hesitates, then twists on itself and retreats through the hole, pulling back into the wall. Seconds later reality returns as the entire cloud dissipates into nothingness. Of Perpenna himself, there is no sign.
Paul storms up to the hole. “ASSHOLE!” he shouts, his voice obviously returned.
“Um, Paul…” Sophia says slowly, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you….”
“Oh, he’s an asshole, he deserves it,” Paul says, still staring outside.
“That’s not the asshole you should be worried about right now….” Sophia is staring too, but not through the windows.
She’s staring into the museum.
The noise comes again, followed by rhythmic concussions that rock the floor. Footsteps….
I heft my sword, still hissing and sparking. “Girl? Is this what I think it is…?”
She shakes her head slowly. “Tom, I honestly don’t know what’s in here for sure…they just told us to never come here.…”
Paul stalks back over to us, frowning. “Well, do we want to leave, or stick around and find out what’s in here?”
“Well, I don’t want to stick around, but we don’t know where Perpenna went…” Sophia says slowly. We all turn to look at the glass as another rumble rocks the building.
“…Let’s try the back door,” I say, too nervous to even make a joke about it.
We hurry through the museum, cutting across the walkways over the open tops of the reef tanks, and head to the large glass doors of the back entrance. The minute we step foot in the rear foyer, though, security fencing unrolls and crashes down across the entire bank of doors. Without hesitation, I run up and start cutting through with my sword. Paul and Sophia hang back, lurking near the open pit of the alligator exhibit, glancing around nervously.
Then a voice, sourceless and deep, rolls through the museum, rumbling like the echoes of eons.
“Clever leeches…clever, clever leeches…who weren’t so clever…afterall…”
We all freeze and trade a look. I cut faster….
“So quick to escape…so quick to leave…why, we’ve only started to plaaay….”
“I think we’ve had enough play tonight!” Pall yells, turning aimlessly in the middle of the foyer. “I think quiet discourse is what we need now. Maybe a good book.”
I grit my teeth, focused on my task, when suddenly an invisible force grabs me and throws me across the room. I skid across the floor, sword spinning out of my hand, and roll to a stop next to the fencing lining the alligator pit. I scramble over to grab the sword, looking for my assailant, but I see nothing, just faint wisps of movement out of the corner of my eyes, gone before I can look at them.
“Whyyyy would leeches come here, I wonder?” the voice resonates. “To steal…from me?”
“Didn’t you see the shadow monster outside?!” Paul calls.
“Shadow monster?” Laughter rumbles through the building. “Leeches speaking of leech-craft…leeches, and a pet dog….”
I turn to Sophia. She’s pressed back against the fencing, shaking and staring around with wide eyes. I reach out a calming hand, but she just shakes her head, face growing more distraught.
Paul, meanwhile, notices a fire alarm on the wall by the stairs. He dashes forward and trips it…but nothing happens. He stares at it and sighs. “You’re not up to fire code!” he shouts.
The laughter comes again, loud enough to shake the floor. “Fire code!? You would see fire codes, then, would you!?”
“I was expecting to see blinking lights and indoor sprinklers!” Paul yells. “You got those?”
The voice chuckles darkly. “Well…let’s find out….”
A massive vent of flame suddenly erupts from down the hallway, licking along the floor, expanding to fill the foyer, racing directly toward us. With moments to act, we all do the only logical thing:
Jump over the rail and into the alligator pit.
We crash into the pond ten feet below, sending fish and turtles scattering. The flame blasts overhead, curling around the metal banisters where we just were, then stops.
“Oooh, so we’re going to plaaaay…. Wondrous. I haven’t had sport in some time….”
We flail around, looking for an escape. The keeper-doors to the exhibit aren’t immediately visible, well-hidden behind artificial foliage, so our eyes are drawn to the next best option: the floor-to-ceiling glass windows opening to the aquarium level in the basement. I slog forward and jam my sword straight through.
“Tom…” Paul calls, “The alligator….”
“Don’t worry about him,” I mutter, “The splashing will keep him away, I’ll be through here in a sec—“
“No, Tom…there is no alligator.”
I turn, scanning the tank. Snapping turtles are hauled out on the logs in the corner, and koi glide around me, but there’s no sign of the exhibit’s star. Which is odd, he’d be a little hard to miss, what being ten-feet long and—
I freeze, a sudden, overwhelming realization clunking into place like a ton of bricks. I’ve never been to this new museum, but I’ve read articles about it since it opened, and there’s one key fact they all have bragged about:
Claude, the resident alligator and symbol of the museum, is an albino….
At that moment, a huge, leathery claw, studded with scales, talons as long as my arm, wraps around the railing at the edge of the pit, bending it under the weight and digging into the concrete flooring.
The claw is pure white.
We freeze, staring up at it. “…Oh,” Paul says flatly, “Are you Claude?” The voice doesn’t answer, but a head lifts into view—long, studded with fangs, big enough to make the Tyrannosaur out front look like a gecko, and topped by deep, blood-red eyes.
Paul panics, crashing through my half-finished hole and into the aquarium level. Water pours out, flooding across the floor and around the exhibits in front of the glass. (Me: “Oh no! The fish!”) Sophia, though, is petrified with terror. I sheathe my sword, wade over to grab her, and start wading back to the hole.
But the dragon—because there’s no question it’s a fucking dragon, now—reaches in and blocks the glass with his claw. “Now, now…” he growls, sending waves across the surface of the remaining water, “There’ll be time for that later….”
(Jim: “Oo! You haven’t tried to put your sword in it yet!”
Chris: “It’s moving its hand close to you. It wants you to put your sword in it!”
Jim: “It’s science!”
I pull Sophia back with one arm, then with the other, whip my sword in a slice across the dragon’s wrist.
A shriek blasts through the pit, instantly shattering the rest of the glass. The claw is ripped away, out of the exhibit. I let the current pull me forward, getting us out while we have the chance, Sophia hanging feebly on my left arm, my right gripping the sword, suddenly much heavier—
I look at it. The magnesium-bright flare has gone out. Instead, the blade of the sword is now shining, solid gold.
“Good science,” I mutter, and pull us out into the aquarium.
Paul, meanwhile, is running through the aquarium, panicked, conscious mind barely aware of his surroundings or the shrieking and roars echoing from above. He finally comes to his senses minutes later, deep inside the maze of exhibits. He whirls around, trying to get his bearings, and comes face-to-face with a giant, lit plaque, listing the names of major donors to the museum.
And his name is at the top of it.
He stares a long moment, eyes narrowing. “…I’m going to ask for my money back,” he mumbles.
“Paul!?” my voice echoes through the space.
“I’m back here!” he shouts back, “Regretting my financial choices!”
The bellows from upstairs finally cease and the dragon’s voice returns. “Resourceful, leech, but it will do you no good! This is my temple, and here I am a god!!!”
Flames boil down the stairway like a blast-furnace, wending between the exhibits, melting plastic and cracking glass. Sophia and I duck around a corner just in time, huddling against the wall, backs to the licking flames.
“Paul!” I shout, “Head toward stairs!”
“I thought I was!” his distant voice replies.
(Me: “Urg, god, it’s such a fucking maze down there, I’ve been there so many times and I get lost every time….”)
Sophia presses back against the wall. “I don’t think it wants to let us out,” she gasps.
“You think,” I mutter, peeking around the corner.
She grips my arm. “Tom, I’m sorry, I didn’t…I didn’t think this would be—“
I hold up a hand. “How’s your recharge looking there? Got enough energy to get us out? Through the Umbra?”
She stares around. “Maybe, but the Gauntlet is pretty high here…this is a museum….”
“…I’m going to pretend I know what that means,” I mutter, peering around the corner. The stairs in front of us are obviously out, since the dragon is likely at the top of them, but there must be other exits from this floor.
I gesture for Sophia to follow and dash deeper into the aquarium.
Paul finds another set of stairs and quickly mounts them to the top. He comes out onto the main floor and finds himself faced with a man.
A pale man, dressed in a white linen suit, with long white hair.
“Hello!” Paul says, skidding to a halt. “Do I know you?”
“I know you,” the man says softly, stepping forward, glaring at Paul with blood-shot pink eyes.
Paul frowns. “…You must be Claude,” he says slowly. “At least we can talk in this form.”
He scowls. “Oh we can talk in any form I choose, leech,” he hisses. “I believe I warned your compatriot that this place is not for you.” He takes another step forward. “Let me guess, when the wolves are away, the insects will play?”
“I’m…not entirely sure on lupine ecology to be sure, but perhaps there is an exhibit here that will enlighten me.” Paul holds out a hand. “Why don’t you give me a tour?”
The pale man glares…and then unfolds into the massive shape of the white dragon. He rears back, long neck nearly reaching the ceiling, and spreads great wings like massive sails across the space. He opens his jaws, large enough to swallow a man whole, and roars, sending the massive whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling swaying. He leans down, and Paul can practically see sparks of flame building in the back of his throat—
(Chris: “I SUMMON PERPENNA!!”
*silence in the room*
Everyone: “…Oooooh, god—“
Me: “Goodbye Paul. Can I have your apartment?”
Jason: “Well he’s going to be dead, so who’s going to say no! …Course, so are you…”
Me: “Urg, god, I don’t know which is worse, being eaten by a dragon or eaten by Perpenna.”
Jason: “Don’t worry, he’ll eat Aquilifer first.”
Kara: “Well, Chris, I guess we’re going to meet your Ventrue sooner than we thought.”
Chris: “Maybe. I’m still hoping Perpenna will save us!!”)
Sophia and I are running through the aquarium, dodging exhibits, trying to find a fucking stairwell in that fucking maze of a place, when a roar from overhead nearly knocks us off our feet. It’s followed immediately by Paul shrieking in what can only be a frenzy-panic—
—And then Paul’s scream is cut off.
We look at each other. “Maybe not a stairwell, then,” I mutter. The aquarium is on the basement level, and I know there’s an underground parking garage uner the concourse, so we start looking for emergency exit doors that might lead there instead.
We finally find an unmarked door, off in a shadowy corner, locked, but with no visible handle.
(Me: “’S alright, we make our own doors around here!”)
I slice through, kick it in, and run through without even pausing to see what form my sword took. Inside is a hallway, brightly lit, leading to a stairwell going further down.
Sophia and I glance at each other, but another roar from above sends us bolting down it, deeper into the bowels of the building.
Back in Hell—or some facsimile thereof—Georgia has just finished diablerizing Himmler at the base of the Molten Hall, while Anstis and Carlos looked on impassively. She stands up, eyes flashing with power, positively aglow…(Jason: “…with, you know, death.”)
Anstis turns to Carlos. “I hope you know how to get out of here now.”
“Mr. Anstis,” Carlos rasps, glancing at the desiccated husk of Himmler, “I’m afraid he was your best way out….”
Georgia carefully steps through a gap in the dripping leaden curtain. “Well, guess we’d better go find our own way, then. Thanks for your help, we’ll see you later—“
Carlos regards her a moment. “Ms. Johnson,” he says, eyes narrowing in his sunken face, “I would owe you quite the favor if you would take me with you—“
(Me: *from across the room* “NOOOOOOOPE!”)
“—I can attempt to protect you from the homicidal maniac, Tom Lytton, and his pet wolf.”
(Me: *doing dishes* “What? What did you say?!”
Jason: “Carlos calling someone else a homicidal maniac, that’s rich.”
Chris: “I thought it was a nice touch. But, you know, Carlos kills for a code. Tom kills for…laughs.”)
Georgia nods and takes a small step back. “I’m sure that you would be willing to protect me, but as I said, we’re going to have to find our own way out, so I think its best we part ways.” She turns to Anstis. “We should head out.”
“I think we will require the Emperor before we leave,” Anstis grumbles, staring around the burning streets.
“I can find him,” Carlos says. “My Sparrows gather much information for me….”
Georgia hesitates, eyeing him speculatively. “Can you also find the werewolf cub?”
“Perhaps….” Carlos says. The burned boys suddenly appear, materializing out of the ashen shadows to gather around Carlos. “But we shall revisit the issue of that favor…later….”
Carlos whispers to the boys and they scatter, disappearing in all directions. Carlos turns to Anstis then, regarding him. “Mr. Anstis, I gather you are also an Englishman. Whereabouts?”
Anstis eyes him. “I was born in Cornwall, left soon after. Grew up in Providence. And where do you hail from?”
(Jason: “I’m nearly certain Carlos is from London cause I’m nearly certain Carlos is actually Jack the Ripper.”
Chris: “That’s as decent a theory as any. I think the timeline is a little off but who cares.”
Jason: “Yeah, well it’s close enough that I’m willing to propose the theory.”)
“Ahh, London,” Carlos sighs. “East End.” He glances around then sidles closer. “Mr. Anstis, I have in my many years dedicated my life, my Great Work, to the understanding of death. And I have inferred that you yourself possess some knowledge…and talent…in this area.”
Anstis turns to him, his gaze turning calculating. “And I have noticed that you have some talent…with the shadows.”
Carlos grins his broken-toothed grins. “Then I think, perhaps, we might be able to…enlighten each other.”
(Me: “DEAR GOD NO!!”
Kara: “Yeah, ok, Georgia is going to go look for Norton now, bye!”)
Antis and Carlos watch Georgia scurry down the block. “We should probably not split up,” Carlos rasps. “Perhaps you can strike up a tune and we’ll follow her.”
Anstis nods and grins back. “Aye! We shall!”
Anstis and Carlos then saunter through the smokey air, down the burning street, singing “99 Bottles of Blood on The Wall.”
(Jason: “Let the record state that this is happening.”
Kara: “I also want to let the record know that Georgia is actually a little afraid right now. That may be the first time in many sessions she has actually felt fear.”
Jason: “She should.”)
Their strange party wanders through the streets toward the north, passing burnt-out houses and abandoned buildings. They eventually come to a vast, dark wood, with tall, flayed trees looming over lifeless shadows. Georgia hesitates only a moment before heading inside, followed by Carlos and Anstis.
“Norton!” Georgia’s voice echoes through the trees. “…Puppy?” There’s no response. She continues deeper, following a narrow, winding path. After some time, the darkness lifts somewhat, with the edges of the forest visible between the trees. There’s movement here too, shifting in the branches of the trees. As it gets brighter, Georgia looks up.
The movement is corpses, hung from the trees by nooses, swaying in an unfelt breeze. Though the bodies are tied up by the neck they look far worse than strangled; broken and bruised, limbs hang bonelessly over torsos split open like overripe fruit. For most of them, their features are smashed beyond recognition, but the clothes are enough to tell they are men and women of all races and walks of life.
Georgia pushes on cautiously, but the corpses get thicker the closer she gets to the edge of the wood, and closer to the ground. When she reaches a point where she can’t move forward without physically brushing past them, she stops. Carlos and Anstis catch up not long after.
“Carlos, what is this place?” she asks.
“This is a Wood of the Suicides,” he rasps, staring around. “Look at these bodies…do they understand now?”
Her gaze flicks around. “Understand…what?”
“The miracle of death,” he sighs.
“I…bet they don’t,” she says cautiously.
“And yet…they have gone through it…”
“How?” she asks softly, staring at the mutilated condition of the bodies. Carlos points wordlessly ahead, through the trees. Georgia makes her way carefully forward, slipping through the last of the corpses, and comes out on a hillside, sloping down steeply toward the bay.
A hillside…looking out on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Georgia stares at the bridge and stares at the bodies, their sightless faces looking forever out on the instrument of their own death.
Georgia is silent, taking this all in, before turning back to Carlos. “I would think that you would like it here.”
“It has its…opportunities,” he says, watching a woman in a cotton dress twist slowly next to him. “Nonetheless, I don’t think this is a place we really want to be…hanging around.”
(…And honestly this was a pun of such horror it bears subjecting you to it in real time.)
One of the Sparrow-boys shows up then, slipping easily between the hanging legs of the bodies. He scurries up to Carlos then stops, staring at Georgia and Anstis with wide, vacant eyes.
“It’s alright,” Carlos urges, “They are our friends now. You can speak.”
“…He’s on the bridge,” the boy whispers, “He’s dancing on the bridge.” The boy turns to Georgia, revealing a face half-missing in burns. “You should go. You all should go….”
Georgia stares at him. “…Is this child capable of malice?”
Carlos cocks his head. “I don’t understand your question.”
“I suspect he may be trying to…off me.”
Carlos clutches his long arms to his chest in distress, though whether it is genuine or mock is not immediately clear. “Ms. Johnson, that is a highest honor imaginable to me! What do you say child?” he asks, turning to the boy.
The boy’s grin cracks his ruined face. “It will be fuuuuun….”
Georgia continues to stare at him warily, then jumps as Carlos gives a sharp clap. “Then it’s settled!” Carlos says, “Let us all go to the bridge!”
Georgia turns to look at the great bridge. It arcs into the distance, disappearing into gloom, and though there is no wind, the water underneath is cut with whitecaps like sharks’ teeth. ”I…think I’ll wait here….” she says slowly.
“You wouldn’t want to be left behind, my dear,” Anstis rumbles, poking idly at one of the bodies.
She glare at him. “You do realize, if we die here, we cant go back to the real world.”
He cants a glance at her. “Which is why we should stick together and not die.”
More of the Sparrows have arrived by now, materializing out of the shadows under the trees to stare vacantly at the group. The first boy, still staring intently at Georgia, cocks his head. “Why would you want to go back?”
Carlos sidles over and scoops the boy into a side-armed hug. “There is so much to learn in the other world! So many…experiments to perform!” Carlos’s eyes glitter like jewels stolen from the bodies of the dead. “My child, you could come with us! You all could come with us!”
Georgia turns her wary gaze to Carlos. “…What kind of experiments?”
“Of the most important kind,” he rasps. “I mean to understand the Great Change. I mean to understand…death.”
Georgia stares a moment, then wordlessly turns to leave, skirting the edge of the wood to walk down the hill.
Carlos, still holding the boy, watches her, shaking his head sadly. “She is difficult to manage, I see why so many people want to kill her.”
Hearing this, Georgia stops and turns back. “Actually, it turns out that most vampires are targeted by most other vampires and you really shouldn’t take it personally,” she says sharply. “It’s simply the nature of being a vampire.”
Carlos nods slowly. “So vampires, you mean to say, are an instrument of death….” He breaks out in a jagged grin. “Why, Ms. Johnson, you are a natural at this! We should join our efforts! My great work, and your great work are the same!”
(Kara: “…and that was how Georgia took up Dark Thaumaturgy!”)
Georgia frowns and is about to answer when she suddenly notices something. Movement in the forest, low to the ground. Something…small. The moment she looks at it, though, it takes off, scurrying deeper into the shadows.
“Puppy!?” she calls, and hurries after it, back into the forest. Carlos and Anstis follow.
They make their way through the deep wood, finally coming out in a clearing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. The bridge isn’t visible from here, but there’s another interesting landmark to see: A massive, multistory palace in the Victorian style, with leaden-paned windows and peaked crenellated roofs, perched on the rocks, glaring out over the angry sea.
And, unsurprisingly, the building is on fire.
The low, lumbering shape of the werewolf cub scurries down the hill, heading toward the building. Georgia takes off after it, but it quickly outpaces her. It runs to the doors of the burning palace, shoves through, and disappears inside. Georgia runs up to the door but hesitates before entering. The building is on fire, yes, but the inferno seems to be contained to the top floors, at least for the moment. She steels herself and steps inside.
Seconds later, Anstis and Carlos arrive and follow suit, but the three rapidly loose track of each other in the smoke-choked air and maze of rooms.
Anstis stumbles through the gloom, hearing the distant voices of Carlos and Georgia calling out for him and the cub, respectively, but is unable to find either of them. He finally stumbles into a room and sees a figure across it holding a sword. He approaches, claws at the ready…
…But it’s Emperor Norton.
“Emperor!” Anstis cries, relieved.
“Captain….” Norton growls. The emperor is standing in a corner by a high mantle, glowering at Anstis from across the room. As Anstis approaches, though, he gets the sense that Norton’s gaze is not focused on him.
“This place….” Norton growls again, “This flame…these people…we stand among the dead, Captain….”
Anstis glances around. “Emperor, it is time that we be making our escape….”
“Escape?” His eyes narrow. “From what, and to where?”
“Back to where we belong. Georgia knows a way.”
Norton’s gaze, burning like the house around them, finally focuses on Anstis. “Do you not know where we lie?”
Anstis looks out the windows, to the familiar vista of waves pounding against naked rock. “Is this your old home?”
Norton nods slowly. “Yes…I lived here once…many years ago, I lived here. In a palace as befit the Emperor…of these United States….”
Norton’s gaze drifts to the mantle next to him. Anstis looks up. Hanging above the carved stone is an oil painting of the exact same mantle, with Norton glowering out of the exact same corner next to it.
“I lived in these walls,” Norton continues, “And they were taken from me. By fire. Hideous…fire….”
Norton’s face glowers, dark as the pounding sea outside. “…Sebastian….”
Anstis frowns. “As I recall, Sebatian is dead—“
“Nothing dies, Captain, nothing dies…it festers, and it lingers, and it waits for its chance to devour anew…nothing dies….”
“Then what would you have us do?”
“Do?” He chuckles darkly. “There is nothing to do…. Ride a ship and amass plunder. Steal shiny baubles from those who have them. What would you have me do, Captain?”
Anstis stares a moment, then stands up straight, tossing the curls of his wig and smoothing the elaborate clothes that Norton himself gave him. “Restore your empire!”
Norton scoffs. “My empire is one of ash.”
“Then rebuild it!”
“To what end? That another may burn it down?” Norton sweeps his arms, taking in the room. “Where are your companions, Captain? Where are those you dwell in the depths of Hell with?”
Anstis looks to the hall. “Oh, they be around….”
At that moment, Georgia suddenly stumbles into the room through a side door. She hails Anstis and Norton in relief, then stops.
The werewolf cub is here, unseen by Anstis, cowering in the corner behind Norton.
Norton’s gaze drifts up to Georgia, then snaps into sudden, panicked focus. “My God…” he whispers, “…What have you done?”
Georgia looks around in confusion. “What?”
“No….” he breathes, “I see it! I see him! Looming behind you! I SEE IT!!” He raises his sword overhead, brandishing it with both hands. “I see it in all of its glory and all of its horror! I see the ashes filtering through your every word!!!”
Realization sets in. “What, no!” Georgia sputters, “I killed him!”
“You killed nothing! You…you PROPAGATED IT!! I see it on you like the sun in the sky!”
“Umm…” Georgia looks down at herself. “…Is there a way to wash it off…?”
Norton swings the sword to the floor, implanting it three inches into the wood with a heavy crack. “You do not wash off the guilt of ages….” he growls.
“…Um…then atone for it, maybe?”
“ATONE!? You would atone!?”
“Well, part of the reason for killing him was to get rid of the bad he did, right?”
Norton shakes his head in shock. “Then why did you not kill him!?”
“But…I did….” Georgia glances at Anstis, but he just stares back blankly.
Norton continues to shake his head slowly. “No…no, Ms. Johnson, you have not killed Heinrich Himmler…he has killed you….”
(Chris: “Wait, what does Anstis’s aura look like?”
Jim: *beams* “Pure as the driven snow!”)
Speaking of shitloads of diablerie, Carlos sidles into the room sometime during this discussion. Norton eventually lapses into repetitive grumbling, and no amount of justification explaining from Georgia seems to console him, so Georgia turns to the business of getting them all home. Drawing on the memories gleaned from Himmler, Georgia sets up a circle on the floor. When it comes time to infuse it with blood, though, Georgia hits a snag: everyone is running low, and even if they all contribute, they will still be short.
Georgia frowns, thinking…and then her gaze falls on the werewolf cub, peeking around Norton’s cape. She thinks for a moment, makes a small change to the circle, then approaches the cub and crouches down. “How you doing?” she says softly. “Do you want to go home?”
The cub stares back with wide eyes.
“I want to take us home, but I will need a little bit of your blood in order to help me do that. Are you ok with that?” The cub stares back, but out of the corner of her eye, Georgia sees Norton tense and his hands tighten on the hilt of his sword.
Georgia reaches forward and gently takes the cub’s paw. The cub doesn’t resist, but Georgia hesitates, searching for a sign that the cub actually understands what she’s doing—
“A prick and be done with it, Ms. Johnson!” Norton suddenly snaps. “If it’s a werewolf, it will heal….” Georgia jumps, then proceeds, pricking the cub’s paw with her dagger. She takes a small measure of blood, which she sprinkles on the transport circle. She then goes to Anstis and Norton and repeats the ritual.
She doesn’t collect blood from Carlos, though, as he doesn’t have any. Everyone knows this, but what they don’t realize is that she has also inscribed the circle in such a way that only those who have donated blood will be able to travel through it….
She finishes and everyone steps into the circle, hastily inscribed on the floor of a burning palace, perched on a cliff at the edge of the underworld. She mutters the incantation, paces through the rituals, gathers up the occultic power, and finally releases it in a bright flash that shines between dimensions.
When the light clears, they are all somewhere else…
….But we do not yet know where….
GOLDEN GATE PARK
Sophia and I, desperate to find a way out that doesn’t lead toward dragon, wind our way deeper. The secret stairway we found leads to the collection’s room, buried under the museum (in fact, true story, when they did the new museum, the collections room was dug and built, the massive shelving installed, then concrete blocks were poured around it and the rest of the museum built on top of it). We break in and race down the long rows of shelves, searching for another exit. As we approach the other end of the room, though, something makes me stop.
In a corner, by a short row of desks, the furniture has been pulled away, revealing what looks like an open manhole, leading even deeper underground. Sophia and I glance at each other. It’s spooky as fuck but it’s possible this is some sort of uber-secret emergency escape tunnel, so…why not? I descend the ladder first, and she follows soon after.
(Jim and Chris, meanwhile, are freaking everyone out by hypothesizing ways to get Carlos back into the real world:
Jim: “It would probably involve maxing-out Necromancy. What I’d do is I would sire somebody, then install your soul in his body!”
*silence as we consider this*
Jason: “Carlos the Tickle-Gangrel sneaks into your dreams…”
Chris: “What is laughter and what are CLAWS!!!”)
The ladder drops us into a subterranean corridor, carved straight out of the rock, lined in some strange metal etched with complex, unidentifiable patterns. There’s no sign of anyone, so we tentatively follow it deeper, finally reaching its end at a pair of large oak doors. The doors are also inscribed with strange shapes, but these ones appear to be wrought in silver.
Sophia looks at me nervously, but I glare at the doors. This is looking less and less like the way out, but some deeper instinct is drawing me forward. Something I need is behind these doors….
I start tugging on the heavy ringed handles. After a moment, Sophia shifts up to full werewolf form to help me. Even with the two of us, we’re only barely able to wrench the thing open with a grinding of wood and metal hinges.
A cold, damp breeze hits us as we step through. The room beyond is also carved out of the bedrock, but immense, broad as a soccer field and at least two stories high. A dim light suffuses the space, coming from some kind of bioluminescent moss lining the dripping walls. As my eyes adjust, I can make out shapes piled in the middle of the room.
Crates, wooden packing crates, of all shapes and sizes, stacked up in a kind of bulwark formation. I approach and see that they’re actually arranged in a ring, fifty-feet wide and circling an area of the stone floor that has been gouged out and worn smooth.
I glance at Sophia, but her bewilderment is just as clear as mine, even on her long wolfish face. I frown and cautiously approach one of the crates. It’s long and low, about the size of a coffin, with no identifiable markings. I investigate it from all sides, then use my sword to cautiously lever the lid off.
And, of course, the sword catches fire the minute it touches the wood.
(Jim: “Tom! You can’t just go sticking your sword everywhere!”
Me: “GODDAMIT! Stick your sword into things! Don’t stick your sword into things! MAKE UP YOUR MIND!”)
Luckily, I’m able to pry the lid off in one movement before it does more than smolder the wood. I put the sword down carefully on the bare stone and investigate the contents.
Rocks. Stacks of flatish, irregular, oblong rocks, wrapped in cellophane and packed in wood shavings, each one about the size of a book, with strange angular carvings. I lift one out to examine it, then deftly snap it in half. They’re not rocks, they’re clay, fired terra-cotta—
(Me: “…This is some fucking British Museum shit, isn’t it?”
Jason: *shit-eating grin* “Congratulations, Tom.”
Me: “GODDAMIT!!! Well TOM doesn’t know what it was!”
Jason: “I know, but YOU do!”
Jim: “…What did you do?”
Me: “He just made me break a priceless cuneiform tablet that’s some multi-thousands of years old! Which I know because he told me a story at length about a crate of the exact same tablets stored in the British Museum when we were at the DeYoung two months ago!!! That was fun for you, wasn’t it!?”
Jason: “…Little bit!”)
I toss the tablet pieces back into the crate and continue to look around. On the far wall, opposite from where we came in, I see some more large objects propped up. Four of them, made of sort of deep, black stone, looking something like the Tremere sarcophagi we found in Alcatraz but bigger. Much, much bigger.
Sophia appears at my side, back in human form, shivering against the cold. “Tom….there’s something wrong with those….”
“Yeah, what the hell are they made of?” I ask, stepping forward.
“I don’t know what they’re made of but they smell like the Wyrm. Like, a lot. More than you do.”
I continue to investigate them cautiously, avoiding touching them. They have no carvings, but they’re definitely some sort of sarcophagus. I can see the thin line of the lids against the matte-black stone.
With no answers here either, I turn back to the crates. The shape of the pile seems too suspiciously deliberate. Why not organize them into rows, or even just one big pile? Why make them into this shape like…a nest….
“Don’t…dragons usually have hordes?” I mutter to Sophia.
“Traditionally….” comes a deep voice from across the cavern.
Sophia and I trade wide glances. I wave for her to stay low, then climb up onto the crates to get a better view, brandishing my sword.
The dragon is here. He’s too large to fit through the hallway we came in, yet somehow he is here, crouched like a hunting cat on the far side of the cave, wings half-spread but wide enough to fill the cavern, white skin glowing in the unearthly light. He tenses as I rise into view, one fore-claw clutching something, while the others dig into the stone.
“Leeches and dogs…invading my temple….ssssnapping my treasures apart….” He hisses and gnashes his long jaws. “What penalties do you think I should inflict on these…trespassers?”
Fighting down panic, I stare back into his blood-red gaze. “Well…I could do some docent tours.”
He chuckles, a sneer rolling across his reptilian face. “And take your payment in the guests, no doubt?” He shifts his weight, wings stirring the clammy air, and that’s when I finally see what he’s holding in his talons.
Paul. Unconscious, if not worse. I even my stance on the crates and grip my sword tighter.
(Me: “…Wait a minute, I just realized: I have a fucking flaming sword!! And…and I’m wearing my leather gear! And I have my guns! And my whip!! I’m standing on a pile of crates, lit by the eldritch glow of ancient moss in a giant cave, staring down a fucking dragon!!!”
Jason: “You do look pretty fucking metal. Somewhere…somehow….Motorhead is creating an album to go with this cover art.”
Me: *turning apoplectic with the imagined-awesome* “Yeah!!”
Jason: “What are you going to do?”
Me: “BRING IT ON!!!!!”)
Even within the game, I take a moment of awesome self-awareness, but quickly bring it back to the issue at hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Sophia pressing back against the wall, eyes wide in terror. Still staring at the dragon, keeping his attention, I move away from her and level my sword at the sarcophagi behind me. “What are these for?”
“Collections,” he hisses.
“What have you been collecting?”
The scaly lips spread in a fanged approximation of a grin and his talons around Paul tighten. “Leeches, of course….”
(Me: “IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!!!”
Jason: “SO DO YOU!!!!”)
The dragon hisses, low. “I know what you’ve been up to. What you’ve been seizing and making your own. Masters of your own world? Lords of the food chain?”
I can’t help but snort. “Pot, kettle, much?”
“Oh I play with my food a little. But I don’t do this to them. I don’t…drag them into the night….”
I shrug, still meeting his gaze. “Not much for drag shows.”
He snarls, smoke curling out of his mouth. “Were you coming here to find more servants? More minions?”
I frown. “I…think you got me confused with those other assholes what run around the Pyramid….”
He strides forward, barely bothering to restrain his weight on the claw holding Paul. “You leeches…you think that the only reason you couldn’t enter this place was the dogs? The dogs you butchered…were the only thing keeping me from you…ironic, isn’t it?” He tosses Paul across the room. Paul crumples to the floor and I get a brief glimpse of a thick stake shoved clear through his torso. The dragon’s head rises up, nearly brushing the ceiling of the cave. “I warned you, Lytton, to stay away from my museum. And here you are….”
And that’s when I finally put the last piece of the puzzle together: Charles Steinhart, the creepy, distinctly pale man, I met outside the DeYoung a few nights ago.
(Or, rather, I should say Tom figures it out. I figured it out that very night. Cause I am very smart…and Tom is not.)
I glare between the dragon—Claude, Charles, whatever—and the black sarcophagi. “What happened to Marcus?” I ask slowly, voice low.
The dragon cocks his head. “Marcus? They have no names here.” He chuckles. “You think you frighten me with that…knife of yours? Do you know what fear is, leech?”
“I’ve been acquainted with it lately, yes,” I grumble.
“Then what are you afraid of?”
I throw my arms out. “That thing that ate half the Digital Web and chased us in here!”
“Afraid of other leeches? How convenient.”
I frown, remembering everything we’ve seen Perpenna do so far, and everything people have said about him. “I think he’s more than that….”
“They all think that they’re more, and then they meet the flame, and we see what they’re actually made of.”
He spits a glob of fire onto bare stone. It’s not large, or close enough to set anything on fire, but it’s enough to make me jump. He laughs, the sound rattling the walls. “Ooooh, are we afraid of fire, leech?”
I glare, not bothering to hide the frustration on my face. Marcus is here, somewhere, I know it, and as deadly as this guy is I’m getting real sick of his bullying. In response to his taunt, I hold up my burning sword and stare into it….
(Jason: “Self control test.”
Me: “Noooo, I want to be cool!”
Jason: “If you want to be cool, you roll self control! Cool guys don’t look at explosions!”)
The licking flames dance inches from my face, but I hold my ground. I stare into their depths, then turn around to cast my cool gaze on the dragon looming above me. He hisses at me, eyes narrowing.
Then I plunge the sword deep into the crates below me.
The dragon roars. I dance back, expecting the crate to light on fire, but the sword hits something inside and extinguishes, and whatever it hits, it isn’t able to penetrate. I pull it out and find it coated with acrid liquid again. Acid….
I don’t have time to grumble, though, cause moments later the dragon dives at me, jaws snapping. I leap off the crates, running toward the back wall…toward the sarcophagi. I have more than a reasonable suspicion that Marcus is in one of them, and he’s our best chance for getting out of here. The dragon is scrambling to his feet behind me, though, so I’ll have just barely enough time to open one….
(Jason: “There are four crates, lined up against the wall. Which do you choose?”
Me: “….Second from the left.”
Jason: “So…number 2?”
Me: *confidently* “Yes.”
Jason: *grumbles* “…Figures….”)
I jam the sword under the rim of the lid, prying it up, and thrust it bodily off—
—And find Marcus, staked inside.
Paul wakes up suddenly, in a dark clammy space, with someone looming above him…
…It’s Sophia. She’s staring down nervously, clutching the thick stake that was rammed through him.
Paul sits up groggily. “Is there still a dragon around?”
“Yes, there’s still a dragon! It’s about to eat Tom!” She tosses the stake away and points across the cave.
Paul scrambles unsteadily to his feet. “I…can distract it…?”
“Distract it? How?!”
Paul stares at the heavy muscled flanks. “Um, well I can go in on the right, and you can go in on the left?”
Sophia stares at him. “Paul, answer me something? How did my life get more dangerous after I met you guys?”
He shrugs and faces the dragon, steeling himself. “Just lucky, I guess. On three?”
She follows his gaze and gulps. “How about right now….”
I reach forward to grasp Marcus’s stake…
…But it slips out of my grip as I am dragged bodily backwards—
(Jason: “Roll your soak-check!”
Me: “Oh, yay, I get to use Fortitude!”
Jason: “‘Yay’?! You should never be excited to use Fortitude.”
Me: “I know, but it’s new….” *rolls, shows dice to Jason*
Jason: *stares* “…Holy shit, you actually take no damage!” *he facepalms* “This game!! I have actually used the words, ‘The wereshark fails to harm Georgia substantially,’ and now…statement number 2 that has never been uttered before: ‘Tom, the screaming angry Mokole fails to do you any harm!’”)
—But it doesn’t do much harm. I whip around with my sword, slashing at the claw, embedding it deep into the muscles as the sword shifts instantly to gold. Steaming black blood wells out, pouring over me and the ground. The dragon shrieks, loud enough to shake rubble from the ceiling, and tosses me aside as it writhes against the stone floor. Between thrashes, I see Paul and Sophia standing on the other side of the room, staring in shock. I duck back and start to make my way around toward them.
After about a minute the shrieks stop. Growling, panting heavily, the dragon twists itself back to standing, holding its injured claw against its chest. It limps toward us, chest expanding, red eyes glaring balefully over its building breath of flame—
—And that’s when the shadow tentacles pour into the room. Not from Marcus’s sarcophagus, but from the hallway.
The dragon turns to face the cloud, hesitates a moment, then roars and plunges straight into the darkness in a long leap. The blackness swallows him instantly, but unlike with anything else we’ve seen Perpenna absorb, the shadow isn’t calm after that. Instead, it boils higher, bursting with muted roars and occasional flashes of flame.
We stare a moment, stunned, then I regain my senses and dash back toward Marcus’s sarcophagus, Paul close behind. I reach for the stake but Paul holds out a hand to stop me.
“Wait, wait, Tom, we don’t know what condition he’s in!”
I stare at Paul, incredulous. “What? Yes we do, he’s fucking staked!”
“Well, yes, but I mean he could come out really hungry….” Paul casts a significant glance behind us. I turn and see Sophia, approaching cautiously, shaking in her hospital gown and my jacket, staring at Marcus like she’s looking at a ghost.
Or a monster….
“Fine,” I say, “Well we gotta get him out of here.” Paul and I look around, but unfortunately the only exit from the cave is the main hallway. A.k.a, the hallway filled with a dragon and an ancient abyssal shadow-monster at the moment.
I turn to the other sarcophagi. Well, if Marcus needs blood, maybe there’s some asshole in one of these we can feed to him… I run through, prying them open one by one. Two of them open easily, revealing nothing inside. The fourth one, though, is locked solid, and nothing I do—with or without the sword—can budge, or even scratch it.
Paul, meanwhile, is staring straight up. “Tom, maybe you can use that sword to cut through to the level above…?” I follow his gaze. The ceiling is almost two stories above our head, but he’s right that it’s probably the only direction we know will lead to an exit. I groan and walk to the wall, using the sword to laboriously cut handholds out of the wet, mossy rock and make my way up.
Paul, meanwhile, naturally, checks his phone. There’s no phone signal under ground, but there is wireless, from the museum above. He connects and uses Facetime to contact our last, best hope for a rescue operation:
Bell: *glaring through his sunglasses on the Facetime video* “Stewart. Yes?—What is that unearthly noise? Where the hell are you?!”
Paul: “Uhhh, I’m in the basement of the California Academy of Sciences—“
Bell: “You’re WHERE!?”
Paul: “Yes, and Perpenna is fighting a dragon, buying us some time, but we don’t seem to have access to an exit. Also, in case we don’t make it out, Perpenna was involved with that stuff with Himmler, there’s a bunch of werewolves out there that have no idea what’s going on but they’re pretty mad, and there was this other creepy guy working with Perpenna with these like crazy blue eyes….” *pause* “Anyway, that’s the immediate situation, how are you?”
Bell: *slowly, silently lowers his sunglasses*
Paul: *switches his camera to rear-view to show Bell the dragon-shadow fight*
Bell: “…Well, that’s new….”
Paul asks for some sort of airstrike attack again or something, but unfortunately there isn’t much even a military-equipped plane can do against targets many stories underground. “I hate to say this, Paul,” Bell says, “But…you may be in a bit of trouble.”
“I was afraid of that,” Paul grumbles.
“Well…if I don’t hear from you again, I’ll at least have to say that you died in the most inventive way I’ve seen in awhile. I don’t see that there’s much I can do, and I don’t say that lightly.” Bell nods once, face grim. “Good luck,” he says, and hangs up.
Suddenly there’s a high pitched shriek, undulating across reality, and the shadows across the room evaporate and withdraw. As they part, they reveal the dragon, facing the entrance, wings and claws bared to their fullest extent, covered in strange bubbling black ichor and other unidentified substances. He rears up and screams, a grinding earthquake of a roar, shuddering the crates and knocking rocks out of the ceiling.
And then, like a tottering redwood, he crashes to the ground.
We all freeze. Paul and Sophia are still on the floor, peering around the crates. I, meanwhile, am some five or six feet off the ground in the middle of my impromptu rock climb. I stare at the massive white figure across the room, sprawled out, eyes closed, looking for all intents and purposes like he’s dead, or close to it.
My hand tightens on my sword, currently buried in the rock. There’s only one thing I must to do, and I’ll only get one chance to do it….
“SOMEBODY TAKE MY PICTURE WITH THE DRAGON!!!!!”
I leap off the rock face and dash across the room. I’d take a selfie myself—like I did when I took out Alejandro and drew dicks all over his face—but I’m currently phone-less. Hopefully Paul or Sophia can take it with one of theirs. I run to the front of the dragon, imagining my perfect pose, getting all Teddy Roosevelt big game up in this shit—
—And then the dragon’s eyes snap open, and his near claw reaches out to grab me.
END OF NIGHT