8/07/2014

Jason: “So. Previously, Tom and Paul were in the basement of Cal Academy, and Tom had just been grabbed by an angry dragon.”
Me: “Yeah. I don’t know why, but, you know….”
Jason: “Yes. So the dragon has Tom, and I can see immense concern on your face, Chris, regarding that fact.”
Chris: “Well the dragon is also blocking the doorway…and, as much as I think Tom is a sociopath, and not really well balanced, and probably had a bad childhood given his various neuroses—“
Me: “His homosexuality had better not be one of them!!!”
Chris: “—he has saved me as often as he’s put me in danger. Often, he’s saved me after he’s put me in danger.”
Jason: “Colleen, no, homosexuality is not a neurosis, but the list of neuroses Tom does have is extremely long.”
Me: “…Well, Tom has a lot of personality traits in common with me, so…thanks for that?

***

GOLDEN GATE PARK

The great, albino dragon grabs me in his foreclaw, pinning me to the ground as he lumbers to his feet. Across the cave, Paul and Sophia gasp and step back into the alcove next to the giant sarcophagus Marcus is staked in. They need to do something quickly, so Paul decides to take a risk. Moving slowly so as not to draw the dragon’s attention, he reaches in to unstake Marcus, but the stake is wedged tight.

“Sophia! Help me with this!” he grunts, but she doesn’t respond. Paul turns. She’s staring at Marcus’s body, face almost as white as he is.

“Paul…” she says, “You don’t want to do that…that’s Marcus Sertorius…. Do you know what this guy has done?

Paul frowns. “Only parts, but he has saved my ass a few times before, and do you have any better ideas for getting past that?” They glance at the dragon, shaking his head as he gradually comes back to his senses. “Marcus will hopefully be able to teleport us out, or restrain that guy—“

“Or kill everyone in the room!

Paul stares at her evenly. “He’s not going to do that.”

She presses back against the wall of the cave. “You’re right, he’s just going to kill me and the dragon!”

“He’s not going to kill you.”

“He’s killed every werewolf he’s ever laid eyes on, Paul!”

“He’s not going to kill you,” Paul repeats. “If he tries, its going to be over my…doubly-dead body.”

Sophia stares at Paul, glances at the dragon, glances at me, then groans and reaches over to help Paul pull the stake out. There’s a tense moment, then Marcus’s body stirs, his pallor becoming slightly less pallid. His eyes roll open, dark pupils quivering, then settle as they focus. “…Paul?” he mutters, voice hoarse. “Where…?”

“We are under the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, held prisoner by a dragon who is pinning Tom—“

“Stop talking,” Marcus suddenly snaps, closing his eyes and rubbing at his temple.

#

The dragon, meanwhile, is still woozy and obviously injured from his battle with Perpenna, but the injuries are healing before our eyes. He drags me closer to his face and glares down at me.

(Me: “I’m not going to get my selfie, am I?”
Jim: “Maybe you can get a selfie of the dragon kicking your ass!”
Jason: “Better be real quick on that trigger finger, there….”)

“Very clever, leech,” the dragon hisses in a plume of smoke, “Send all your misbegotten kind, it will do you no good…”

I stare back into his piercing red gaze, groping for my magic sword. He sees my movement, though, and the sword. His pupils snap down into slits, he growls…and immediately fast-balls me into the wall with a WHAM! that echoes across the cavern.

(Me: “…But at least I’m out of the tree.”)

#

Marcus sits up, sees the dragon, and freezes. “Ooooh no…Paul, do you know what that is?”

Paul watches the dragon stalk toward me, shaking off dried black patches of blood and ichor. “Um…it’s the alligator.”

“How’s your Presence, Paul?” Marcus asks, keeping his eyes on the dragon.

“Fantastic.”

“Then it’s better than mine. You might want to take this one. He won’t be Dominated and I’m not good enough to take him physically.”

Paul nods once, steels himself, then strides across the room to intercept the dragon.

(Chris: “….MAJESTY!”)

Claude!!!” Paul booms. The dragon stops and turns, staring with predatory intensity. Paul, though, soldiers on. “I think we’ve all had quite the evening already. Why don’t we leave the museum and get out of your hair?”

(Me: “Scales.”)

The dragon growls and prowls toward him. “You walk…into my museum…bearing horrors and Wyrm-taint, creating monsters as you go…and you think you can walk away as soon as matters turn against you? Back into the city to plot, and scheme?”

Paul sighs. “There has been no point this evening where matters had not already turned against us, and yes I think it’s better for all of us if we just call it a night and be on our separate ways.”

“No…no, it will not be permitted,” the dragon rumbles.

Paul throws his arms out. “Why? Why is this so important to you?”

Why?” The dragon jerks his head at the sarcophagi along the wall. “Look at that thing you stand next to! Your kind would perpetrate such horrors, and you would have me let you loose upon the city anew? You burn the custodians of this park to the ground and then you would leave upon finding that what they were protecting was you, not me?”

“Why do you believe I had anything to do with that?!”

“Because you are a leech.” Smoke curls around his head as he spits these words. “The Wyrm wafts off you like a miasma.”

Paul stares a moment, then frowns. “You’re a bit isolated in this museum aren’t you? Don’t get out much? You…might benefit from some regular counseling—once, maybe every two weeks—“

The dragon snarls and snaps his jaws. “If I let you leave, then what? What comes back to my museum? More leeches? Developers? City officials who happen to decide its time for an audit, or an investigation?”

Ah, politics. Paul nods, back on familiar ground. “Look at it this way. You let us go, and you have people who can prevent that sort of thing—”

“Because I trust a leech? A leech who has entranced a werewolf and embraced a child?!”

Paul hesitates, glancing back at Sophia and Marcus. “…I see you’re a little fuzzy on this topic. That’s ok, I am too. I realize we’ve gotten off to a bad start this evening, that happens from time to time, but maybe if we just get to know each other, we will see eye to eye.” He stares up into the dragon’s gaze a moment. “…Which is also difficult right now because you’re, like, 20 feet tall.”

The great eyes narrow. “What do you suggest, leech?”

“Well, we can go look at the fish, or maybe take in a planetarium show….”

Silence falls across the cavern, the only sound the dripping of water along the walls. The dragon stares a long moment…then slowly reverts back to the form of a human, his white linen suit glowing as eerily under the phosphorescent cave light as his scales did a moment before.

(Jason: *turns to me* “…A man you recognize.”
Me: “I think by this point even Tom has put two and two together.”
Jason: “Well, it is Tom.”
Me: “Yeah, Tom, who always knows where Marcus is!”
Jason: “…True. Somehow.” *glares*)

Charles Steinhart eyes Paul warily. “Who ARE you?”

“Paul Stewart.”

Steinhart furrows his brow, regarding Paul. “…You’re a donor. You’re the…computer guy. And you’re a leech?”

Paul sighs and shrugs. “Yes. I’m not exactly thrilled about it, but I’m getting by.”

“What are you doing here?”

Paul gestures toward the tunnel. “That shadow monster you saw, we’ve been fleeing him most of the night.”

“Fleeing him? Why? He’s a leech as much as you are.”

“Well, he seems to dislike us personally, and I think he also has a scheme for ending the world.”

Steinhart grimaces. “What leech doesn’t?”

“A lot of them don’t!”

“A lot of them think they don’t,” he says sharply. “You’re all Wyrm spawn. Spirits of entropy and decay, you exist to destroy the world, that is your purpose. I exist to purge you all, that is mine.”

“That seems…very narrow and kind of fatalistic….”

Steinhart chuckles darkly. “I’m sorry, were you expecting that the world was filled with rainbows and sunshine, leech?”

Paul glares and draws himself up straighter. “If we aspire to make it so, yes. I feel like my career at Tesseract has added value to the universe and made the world a better place, and I see no reason not to continue that.”

“And what part of your career at Tesseract brings you to this place?”

“Coincidence, mostly. This has nothing to do with Tesseract.”

Steinhart sneers and strides forward. “Coincidentally you wound up at my museum just days after every werewolf but one,” he glares across the cavern at Sophia, “is eradicated by leeches? Did you think to come here to claim back your donation, Mr. Stewart? Or to take over the place and run it for your company? You thought it was up for grabs?”

“No, we were just looking for a place to hide and get out of the open. You met the shadow monster, he’s not exactly a nice creature.”

“Yes….” Steinhart hisses. “What drove a creature of that malevolence to try and breech my wards?”

Paul shrugs. “He thinks he’s big stuff.”

Steinhart’s eyes narrow. “He thinks he’s big stuff? Well, tell me, Paul Stewart…” He instantly unfolds back up into a dragon, sending a pulse of displaced air through the cave, “How big do you think he is?”

Paul stare at the dragon looming over him. “…Well I saw him at least 500 meters high an hour ago, so…he’s got a bit on you.”

The red eyes narrow, practically to slits. “Oh he has some on me, does he? Then why am I here and he not, leech?”

“Because…he is probably cowardly and dishonorable.”

The head snakes down. “And how does that differ him from you?”

Paul shrugs, keeping his cool despite the very obvious signs of impending draconic anger. “I like to think of myself as not particularly cowardly and dishonorable. I’ve been on various quests to rescue friends of mine over the last couple of…nights, I guess.”

“So you’re not afraid of me, are you?”

“On the contrary, I am terrified of you!” Paul says matter-of-factly.

His head glides closer. “Are you?”

Paul looks him over. “I mean, you are kind of a pretty awesome dragon. I’ve never been a dragon before, but it looks cool.”

#

Meanwhile, I am slowly pulling myself together, staring blearily at the dragon, when Marcus suddenly steps out of a shadow next to me. I choke down a yell. “Gargh! Boss!”

“Quiet…very quiet…” he whispers, keeping his gaze on the dragon. “And don’t call me that here…. What in Dis’s name is Paul doing?”

I shrug. “Being Paul? Trying to negotiate?”

“With that?” Marcus shudders. “Say nothing that would piss it off. It can kill everyone in this room together. Do you believe me? Good. Then put that fucking sword down. The only thing worse than a Mokole is a Mokole who thinks he’s being threatened.”

I stare at the magic sword, still clutched tightly in my hand. It’s shining gold again, obviously having come into contact with the dragon at some point. I glower and sheathe it.

#

The dragon stares at Paul a moment, then rears back, tossing his head lightly. “Do I fill you with terror then, leech? Why…is it because I’m big? Or have flames ? Or is there a deeper reason?”

Paul stares at him a moment, considering. His vain attitude is unmistakable—and not just because he’s a dragon—but there’s also something else. Paul gets the sense that despite all his obvious power, Claude is…somewhat out of sorts. Confused, maybe, though he is guarding it well. Perhaps it’s a side effect of him recovering from the battle with Perpenna, or perhaps it means something else. In any event, Paul decides to try and leverage both these angles at the same time.

Paul gestures grandly to the dragon. “Well, yes, you are frighteningly big, and your fire is quite incredible, but it’s more that you have a composure to you. You mean business!”

The dragon hesitates a moment, then leans back, shifting his demeanor more toward regal, rather than ominously looming. “So what shall you do in the face of such a monstrous force as me, Paul Stewart?”

“I’m hoping we can find some common ground! Plainly you are educated and intelligent and cunning, and even though I may not be able to return quite that level of repartee, I’m sure I would find a conversation quite titilating.”

The dragon eyes him another moment, then leans down. “And what would you have me tell you?”

“Well…how long have you been here? You were here before the renovation? You know, my architect is always citing the Academy of Sciences as fantastic architecture—“

“As well he OUGHT!” the dragon snaps. “This is MY castle, leech. This is my museum, nothing takes place here without my will, my approval, my express purpose. The rest of the city may be your playground but this place is mine. It is ALL mine, every stone, every meter, every circuit, every light, basement to rooftop—“

“—And speaking of that, you know what I haven’t seen in awhile is your roofgarden. What…flowers are in bloom up there right now?”

The dragon stops mid-rant and glares at him. “Lupinus nanus and Eschscholzia californica.” He leans closer. “And do you know what’s even better? All of them grow even better with the addition of…Vitae. Now…where shall I obtain some?”

Paul pauses. “I realize there’s a little veiled threat to that—“

“Oh, have I been veiling it?”

Paul hesitates another moment but presses on. “…But if Vitae truly helps them grow, I kind of want to know more cause I have my own garden at home. Also, you know, Tesseract has a roof garden too, I think it was done by the same architect as yours. Let me show you some pictures….” Paul pulls out his phone and starts swiping through his photo-roll. “Our flowers are really great this time of year, and we have native bunchgrasses—“

Paul chatters on, occasionally flashing pictures on his screen to Claude, oblivious of the fact that everyone in the room—vampire, werewolf, and dragon—has frozen in place, staring at him with an expression of, Is this really happening right now?

The dragon narrows his eyes. “…Fed on madmen recently?”

(Me: “No, but we hang out with them.”)

Paul stops scrolling and sighs. “No, I mostly feed on animal blood….it’s kinda gross.”

The dragon suddenly rears back to his full height. “Enough. You have a silver tongue, leech. You think that by talking of these things you will save yourself? Or perhaps live another few seconds?  You want me to leave you alive. Justify that choice. Justify yourself to me. Vampire. Human. Whatever you wish to be. The world is a better place without you, so give me a reason why I shouldn’t eat you….”

Paul stares at him and calmly puts his phone away. “Because that shadowmonster killed all the werewolves in this city, and has been going around killing all sorts of people. He hates me, so at a minimum, keeping me alive spites him.”

“Why should I believe you? A vampire, saying what he thinks I wish to hear.”

“Because it’s TRUE! I like the world, I value it more than my own life, and right now it seems that my greatest contribution to it is standing in that guy’s way.” He punctuates the last few words with emphatic gestures toward the corridor. “So if you take care of him, fine. You can have my life. But don’t take it before you take care of him.”

The dragon eyes him quietly a few moments, smoke curling around him. “Well…” he says finally, “Perhaps it will be more amusing to see you squirm on the outside…but what of the rest of these?” His gaze sweeps around the room, taking in Marcus, myself, and Sophia, still against the wall on the other side of the room. “The ones even now plotting to drive their daggers into my back, as though that will save them?”

Paul shoots a narrow glance at me. “Can you blame them? You are quite imposing. In any case, they oppose that shadow bastard, as do I.”

“They are of that shadow bastard.”

“And yet opposed.”

The dragon sneers and lets out a long hiss. “The Wyrm does not consume itself.”

Paul hesitates and glances at Marcus, remembering what Everton told us about Perpenna’s possible plan to consume all Vitae of his own line, but decides not to bring it up.

The dragon hoists himself to his feet, moving far more quickly than something that size has any right to. He paces slowly toward Marcus and me. “So what would you have me do of them? Let them run free over the grass and the flowers, to kill and despoil?” His gaze shoots through me, pinning me to the wall. “This one has death all over him, I can smell it. And the one beside him….” He glares at Marcus and chuckles darkly.

Paul watches us from behind the dragon. “Perhaps there will be more good in their atonement than in their deaths.”

Atonement!?” He whirls back to Paul. “You don’t know the meaning of the word! None of you do! You despoil and devour and embrace, and think yourselves the lords of creation for it. And then you stand before actual power and quail and wonder how you can work your way out just to suck down one more day of life.”

Paul holds his hands out placatingly. “Ok, again, all generalizations—“

“Generalizations!? Are you or are you not of the Wyrm? Do you not drink blood and live forever, preying on others to continue your own existence?”

“I doubt I’ll live forever. If I get another fifteen years, that’s all I ever really shot for. As for preying on others…” Paul sighs. “…A little. And that makes me sad. But I try to make the world a better place in exchange for…” he gestures at himself, “…This.”

#

The moment the dragon turns back to Paul, Marcus leans closer to me. “If this goes incredibly badly,” he whispers just barely over his breath, ”You’ll never make it to the surface if that thing is chasing you.… That sword of yours, I assume it still works?”

“Whether I like it to or not, yes,” I mutter.

Marcus hesitates. “…That sounds like a story you should tell me some other time. Just…follow my lead as best you can. I’m going to try something. I’ll need your other sword, and whatever blood you can spare.

Marcus kneels down, slices his wrist, then starts spreading blood around in ritual patterns in absolute silence, no sound even of scuffles in the dirt. The patterns quickly take the shape of a circle. I open my wrist to contribute some as well, then hand him the other Tremere sword, the one I stole from Max’s office—magically-sharp, yes, but otherwise comparatively banal.

(Jim: “Marcus has Thaumaturgy?”
Jason: “You’ve seen him use it!”
Me: “He has, like, elemental-magic shit.”
Chris: “Ok, who at this table does not have Thaumaturgy?”
Jason: “You, Tom…”
Jim: *sheepish look* “I totally don’t….”
Jason: “…And Sophia probably does not have Thaumaturgy.”
Chris: “Well she has some sort of blood magic, or fur magic at least…”
Jason: “She has spirit magic.”
Chris: “…Thauma-fur-gy?”)

“Do you have enough energy left to strike?” Marcus mutters, gesturing at the massive flank of the dragon looming before us.

I stare and literally gulp. “I…can try….”

“Good.” He places the sword in the middle of the runed circle and mutters something under his breath. The circle and the sword pulse with a brief glow. Marcus nods then lifts out the sword and hands it back to me. “One hit is all it should take.”

I heft the sword, steel myself, and wait for an angle to strike….

#

The dragon eyes Paul. “And what do you plan to do in those fifteen years you have left to you?”

“Well…honestly, I’m hoping to cut down on about 200 teratons of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere.” Paul hesitates, considering the best way to leverage information about his sunlight technology. “Tell you what, I have a press announcement in the next two weeks, I’ll invite you to the announcement ceremony—“

The red eyes narrow. “Cut down on the teratons how?”

“That’s my secret, and if you leave me alive—“

“You HAVE no secrets here, leech,” he snaps. “You had best tell me and tell me the truth, or I will pick my teeth with your femur….”

Paul is quiet a moment. “I have better means of transmitting electricity for renewable energy,” he says softly.

The dragon snorts. “So does every crank.”

“Maybe…but, no, I really do though.”

“So, what? Perpetual motion? Antigravity? Dianetics?”

I catch Paul’s eye from the other side of the dragon, gesturing at Marcus and the sword in my hands. Paul frowns and turns back to Claude. “Fiber optics.”

The dragon scoffs, sending a plume of smoke curling around Paul. “Everyone has fiber optics, I have fiber optics.”

“Trust me. Wait for the event.”

“Trust a leech? I think not.”

“Trust the CEO of Tesseract.”

“Oh, because a CEO would never lie!”

Paul glares at him. “If you know who I am, you know how much I like my theatrics—“

Which is the moment I run up and slash at his flank with the sword, gouging through the thick scales and spraying black blood across the floor. The dragon jumps and shrieks, whirling on me instantly, pinning me with his gaze and inhaling for an inevitable breath of flame—

—Then wavers, stumbles, and collapses to the ground, completely motionless.

Everyone else in the room freezes, staring at him. Finally, I break the silence, “Dammit, someone take my picture now, please!” I sheathe the sword and run to the dragon, slumped like a snowbank in the middle of the cave.

Paul sighs and takes my picture…then quickly poses for a selfie of his own. “Alright, let’s get out of here.”

“Not yet,” Marcus glowers, staring across the room, “We need to force that other sarcophagus.”

Paul and I follow his gaze to the four stone caskets against the wall, one of which is still sealed shut. “Why? I tried to pry it open earlier but it wouldn’t budge. What’s in there?” I ask.

“An associate of mine,” he mutters, stalking forward. “And no, you wouldn’t have been able to force it. It’s a type of Tremere sarcophagus, taken from the Chantry itself.” He stops in front of the thick black stone, staring up at it. “There are ways to open it, but the easiest way is to use the key. I was hoping he would revert to human form so we could search his pockets for it.”

I survey the room. “Well, there’s a lot of crates here….” I hesitate, noticing movement on the far side of the cavern. It’s Sophia, sneaking in the shadows behind the dragon, making her way toward the exit. I glance at Marcus, then make my way quietly after her.

Marcus is still staring intently at the sarcophagus and doesn’t notice us leave. “Yes, but I doubt he stored the key here, and we don’t have time to search them all before he wakes up anyway. But we need to find it; the occupant of this sarcophagus is the only one who knows how we can put him down. Perpetually.”

Paul looks nervously at the dragon. “Can’t we just…tie him up?”

“With what, a bicycle lock?” Marcus snaps.

Paul throws his arms up. “I don’t know! But now’s our chance to leave! I don’t want to waste it!”

“And what happens when we leave and he wakes up in another hour? You just embarrassed a dragon on his home turf. He’ll come after you and burn Tesseract to the ground just for the fun of it, and maybe this city too.” Marcus stares at Paul intently. “We need to kill him, and the man in this sarcophagus is our only chance of doing so.”

“Why?” Paul asks, “Who’s in there?”

Marcus tenses and turns back to the sarcophagus. “Adrianus van Brugge.”

#

(Jason: “Kara, do you want to go now, or do you want me to do Jim first? It’s up to you.”
Chris: “You are not sleepy right now. You should seize the opportunity to not be sleepy.”
Jason: “True. Colleen makes all her mistakes when she’s tired.”
Jim: “No. She makes plenty of mistakes before then too.”
Jason: “…Yes, you’re right, but she makes more of them after about 10 pm or so.”
Me: “>:|”)

#

GEORGIA’S UNKNOWN LOCATION

Georgia wakes up…in a very comfy place.

She’s in a bed, an elaborately-carved four-poster, lushly-appointed with pillows and warm, soft sheets. She lies there a moment, motionless, and when nothing looms out of the darkness to grab her, she sits up and pulls the drapery back. She’s in a room with elegance to match the bed, with carved-paneled walls, lit silver candelabra and sconces, and a marble-mantled fireplace encasing a small, cheery fire.

And a horrible monstrosity looming next to it.

Georgia freezes. It’s a zchlotcha, a mutated Tzmitscian fleshbeast—as we’ve been calling them—with three arms and two-and-a-half heads, heaving with breath in the firelight and staring at her. Georgia stares back. Though it is clearly regarding her with its mismatched five eyes, it doesn’t seem to react.

“Um…good morning,” Georgia says. It tilts its heads. “Am I a prisoner here?” The creature just stares silently. Eyeing it, Georgia slides slowly out of the sheets to the floor, but it still doesn’t move. She steps away from the bed, intending to investigate the room, but a sound makes her stop. A small voice, coming not from the fleshbeast but from behind her, like a cellphone that accidentally pocket-dialed someone. She turns and leans down, closer to the sheets and pillows, then freezes.

…They’re not sheets and pillows. Or, rather, they are, but they are made of woven, warm, living flesh.

Georgia stands up and turns to the fleshbeast on the other side of the room. “So…this bed…this is a flesh bed and it’s talking to me….” The creature continues to stare at her. Georgia frowns. “You are very unhelpful.”

The voice is still whispering from the bed. Hesitantly, Georgia leans down, putting her ear next to it.

Don’t gooo….” The bed whispers in a wheedling voice. “We don’t want you to gooo….”

Georgia glares, stands up again, and points at the bed. “You…are a creepy flesh-bed. I’m going to have to tell you right now, fleshbed, that I have never met a creepier bed.”

Georgia turns from the fleshbed, ignores the fleshbeast, and goes to check the door to the room. It’s locked. Irritated, she pivots on her heel and goes to pull back the heavy curtains over the window.

(Jason: “…They’re not curtains. Or, rather, they are, but they’re not made of cloth.”
Me: *trading a glance with Kara* “So…they’re meat-curtains….”
Jason: “Yes. They are meat-curtains, and they’re very well crafted.”
Me: *still fighting a smirk* “So…they’re very soft.”
Jason: “Yes.” *pauses, sees Kara’s and my expressions, face falls* “…I just realized I have walked into a very horrible thing….”)

It’s night outside, luckily, but the landscape outside is dark. No sign of city- or street-lights. She can’t climb through it, though, since the window is encased with an elegant lattice-work made of formed bone.

Georgia paces the room, ignoring the whispers of the bed and the fleshbeast’s eyes as they follow her. She pauses at an elaborately carved desk—also made of bone—and starts digging though it for a pen. Frustration growing, she has half a mind to draw herself a circle and GTFO. She finds a pen—bone, again—and tests the ink on a small scrap of parchment.

The ink is blood. And oh yeah, the parchment is more skin.

She crouches on the floor—made of wood, actually—and traces a crude circle. Low on blood herself, she drinks everything left in the pen, then tries to activate the circle…

…And discovers that she was too low on blood.

#

Georgia wakes up some time later in the same room, though it looks considerably different.

Everything is wrecked. All the furniture—wood, flesh, and bone—is shattered and torn to pieces. The circle is ruined, smeared across the floor, the fleshbeast is missing…and the door is still shut.

(Kara: “…How much blood do I have?”
Jason: “Four. You managed to drag that much out of the various bits of furniture.”)

Georgia sighs belaboredly, then sits down on the floor to dig through her inventory.

(Jason: “Stop calling it your inventory! This is not a Sierra adventure game!”
Kara: “But I have a satchel!”
Me: “Yeah, and she used the cheese to good effect last time!”)

Most of the items are still there, but some of the key ones—her phone, the primium dagger, Dr. vonNatsi’s dart, and all of her books—are missing. She frowns, more frustrated by the missing books than the missing weapons, then notices something glinting silver at the bottom of the bag.

The communication bracelet Max gave her.

Even though it only connects with Max, without her phone this is the only way to reach the outside world. She glances once around the room, then puts it on and activates it.

The bracelet tingles with a light hum of magical energy moments before Max’s voice emanates from it. “…Georgia Johnson,” he says flatly.

“Hi! I haven’t talked to you in forever!”

“It has been a while, hasn’t it,” Max says, his voice implying he wishes it was longer.  “What have you gotten yourself into now?”

Georgia stares around her. “Well, I’m currently in a creepy fleshroom…I’m not entirely sure why yet….”

There’s a tense pause before Max replies. “…I want to be specific, here. Are you in a creepy fleshroom, or are you now a creepy fleshroom?

“The former, not the latter.”

“Good, good. try to keep it that,” Max says, though his tone doesn’t sound very enthusiastic about this advice.

“Anyway, I tried to force the door and such, and then I tried to make a circle, but I’m low on blood and it didn’t work, so I was wondering if you could come get me.”

Another pause. “Where are you?”

“I don’t know, can’t you activate the GPS on the bracelet?”

Max sighs. “Fine. One moment…” The magical thrum of the bracelet fades out for a few moments, then back in again. “…How did you get to where you are?” he asks slowly.

“Where am I?”

“San Simeon.”

Georgia frowns and peers into the darkness outside the window. “Where’s that?”

“It’s south, quite a ways south of the city. You’re halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, in the Big Sur area. …How did you get there, again?”

Georgia sighs and starts pacing the room, picking her way through the shattered furniture. “So I was in a pretty scary area and took a circle out of there rather quickly—“

“Hold on, you’re in a hideous fleshroom now, and you say you were in a pretty scary area?”

Georgia stares at the blood splattering the fireplace mantle, behind where the fleshbeast was standing. “Yes. This is one of those out of the frying pan and into the fire kind of things, I think.

“…So what was the frying pan?”

“Uhh…the Shadowlands? …Actually I think that was the fire and before that was the frying pan, which was when I was on the Farallones. Being chased by a wereshark. I left there cause I took a circle in a hurry and ended up in the Shadowlands, so I really have to stop doing this circle-in-a-hurry sort of thing.”

There’s a few moments of silence. “…That would be my recommendation.”

“So…maybe you should take your time…”

Max sighs. “I can’t take a circle to San Simeon to come get you.”

“Why not?”

“Because San Simeon is the domain of an extremely powerful Vovoid, and if I were to take a circle to San Simeon, I would wind up a creepy fleshroom.”

Georgia frowns and stares at her surroundings, considering this. “Can you…send a circle to come get me?”

“They’re circles not taxicabs!” Max snaps.

“…Can you send a taxicab to come get me?”

Max snorts. “Yes, but the driver probably won’t survive.”

“He will if you call Adam,” Georgia says brightly.

“Who’s Adam?”

“He’s my cabdriver. He’s easy to reach, just call for a Sidecar, and a Lyft, and an Uber at the same time.”

There’s a long pause. “…Are you drunk?” Max asks.

She sighs. “I told you I’m low on blood.”

“I’m starting to believe you,” he grumbles, then his voice drops into something more serious. “Georgia, I’m afraid I can’t go anywhere near Big Sur. Call your…diminutive Lasombra friend, he can shadow-teleport.

“I don’t have my phone, can you call him for me?”

“I don’t have his number and I don’t particularly want it.”

“Well, can you call Paul and have him call Marcus for me?”

“….Why am I putting myself in contact with all these vampires for you, again?” Max asks skeptically.

“Well, Max, you are the one who gave me the bracelet, I assume you wanted me to call you.”

“On the occasion you needed advice! My advice being, don’t be in Big Sur!”

Georgia sighs and slumps onto a chunk of the bed. “I do need advice at the moment and I appreciate the tips you’ve just given me, but if you could call my vampire boyfriend and tell him to get our 9-year-old vampire grandfather to come get me, that would be great.”

There’s a long silence after that, but before Max can answer there’s a knock on the door. Georgia looks up. “Hold on Max, someone’s here.”

“…Nice knowing you,” Max says. The hum of energy from the bracelet dies out.

Georgia stands up and faces the door. “I’m decent, you can come in!”

The door opens. A tall, etherial-looking person walks in, dressed in an embroidered satin waist-coat over antique-looking clothing. “Person” is the correct moniker, because there are absolutely no clearly-identifiable gender traits on its entire form. Large, half-lidded eyes gaze at Georgia out of a chiseled face—beautiful in its perfect, androgynous-symmetry—and its long, elegant hands are clasped loosely before it.

Georgia—for once at a loss for words—stares back.

“Hello,” it says in a calm, even voice. The voice also lacks a clear gender designation, but there are vague hints of an accent Georgia can’t place, since, frankly, it sounds like its from many places.

“Um, hi…I’m Georgia…what’s your name?”

It lifts its chin. “Georgia…Why have you come here?”

“I was attempting to escape somewhere very scary.”

It quirks an eyebrow. “You attempted to escape somewhere scary and you came here? This must have been quite a place. What place was it?”

“The…place called the Shadowlands…?”

“You were in the Shadowlands? And what brought you from there to this place?”

“That…was a bit of a navigational error, and if you wouldn’t mind pointing me in the direction of home—“

It glides into the room, investigating the destruction with a cool gaze. “Oh, I could not allow that. It would be impolite. There are requirements that must be fulfilled.”

Georgia watches it, bemused. “Oh? What are they?”

It runs its long fingers over the remains of the bed. “The requirement of hospitality, of course.”

“And…what must you do to satisfy that?”

“I must board you for three nights.”

Georgia frowns. “Are…there other requirements?”

“We shall see. They are very detailed, dependent on many factors.” It gestures, taking in the room. “I see you have…redecorated.”

Georgia looks around her, noticing the remains of the circle still next to her on the floor. She unobtrusively tries to scuff it with her foot. “I am sorry about that, I got a bit hungry….”

“Mmm. It’s a pity. These were works of art. How sorry are you, I wonder?” it asks with an askance look.

“Sorry enough that I’d be willing to send you some art from my apartment?”

“Ah but you do not practice the arts that I do, I think.”

“It’s true, they will be different art.”

“There is only one proper art,” it says, a sharp note suddenly underlying its calm voice. It turns to her. “What is your name? Your full name?”

Georgia hesitates. There’s been a lot of stuff flying around lately about the power of names—both literally and metaphorically—and that plus the creature’s tone makes her suddenly wary. “I…pretty much just go by Georgia.”

“Ah, but I think you have a full name. And I think it would be…unkind of me not to ask it. And it would be unkind of you not to render it.”

“I believe it would be,” she says calmly, watching it carefully.

It stares at her a moment, then smiles a reassuring smile that somehow seems alien on its face. “Perhaps we can trade? Our names, that is.”

Georgia tries to laugh politely. “Well, that’s a very kind offer, but I will tell you I am not in the market for names—“

“Then what are you in the market for…Tremere?” Its face falls back into cool evenness. “Your kind and mine are not particularly friendly, you know.”

“It’s true, which is why it is quite singular of you to offer me hospitality such as this.”

“Oh, well, as I said, there are requirements that must be met. But you do realize, I could kill you and no one would ever object.” It gestures to the bed. “Or perhaps use you to replace my broken artworks.”

Georgia stares at the creepy fleshbed. “That…had occurred to me as well, yes.”

“As well it ought,” it says sharply, then smiles. “But here I am prattling on while we’re standing in this room….” It gestures grandly to the door. “Would you care to join me for dinner?”

Georgia takes a moment to calmly consider all possible implications of that phrase, then nods. “That…would be lovely, thank you.”

It leads Georgia through the building, down hallways and stairwells, all as richly decorated as room. They pass more examples of flesh-furniture—skeletal sideboards and tapestries woven of gently waving, living hair—as well as more prosaic pieces made of alabaster and mahogany. As they walk, Georgi keeps having the feeling that she’s being watched. She glances around, half-expecting the walls to literally have eyes.

They finally arrive in a long carved-paneled dining room, where a long table stretches beneath a high ceiling hung with dozens of colorful flags. The wall panels are made of wood, but the dining table clearly is not. Flesh-upholstered bone chairs skitter back from the table invitingly as Georgia passes, moving on jointed clawed feet. Georgia picks one and tentatively sits, lowering herself slowly onto the quivering surface. Her host sits across from her.

Georgia squirms a moment, then leans down. “Is it alright if I sit on you? Are you comfortable?” The chair doesn’t respond verbally but it seems to twitch a few times.

Her host smiles. “Oh, but the purpose of a chair is to be used.”

Georgia looks down the length of the table. “Are they happy with it?’

It smiles a thin-lipped smile. “In a manner of speaking. But it is no matter. These are…mere trifles. Past-times, hobbies.” It claps its hands. Several humanoid…things walk in bearing large covered platters. They set one in front of Georgia and one in front of her host, then whisk the lids away.

In front of her is a lumpy organ, possibly a stomach, sealed at both ends and filled with a dark liquid, steaming slightly in the cool air.

Georgia peers at her plate. “Intriguing…this looks quite elaborate. What is this?”

“Oh it’s a local delicacy of my own devising. Nothing fancy. A bit of spices, a small char.” It picks up its utensils, gesturing with its knife. “It’s more of a stew than a proper meal. You slice into it, and, well…sup.” It demonstrates by splitting its open its own meal with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, then delicately spooning out portions of steaming, quivering dark liquid.

Georgia glances at her utensils, then back to her plate.

(Jason: “Do you wish to eat from the creepy flesh-stomach, while sitting on the creepy flesh-chair?”
Kara: “Um…I do not….”
Jason: “Hmm. Except you’re really hungry….”
Kara: “Yeah, but I have a prey exclusion.”)

“Is there anything you could tell me about the person this came from?” Georgia asks carefully. “I’m on a strict diet. I’m sorry I should have told you, that’s usually one of the things of being a good guest…”

Her host pauses in its dinner, lifting an elegant eyebrow. “I thought you were Tremere…my apologies. This particular piece?” It considers her plate a moment. “…I think it was a ranch-hand,” it says matter-of-factly, as if remembering where it found a marginally-interesting specimen of insect.

Georgia stares at her food, concerned by this. Not out of moral sensibilities, but because it means the food was likely taken from someone who was powerless, thus violating her prey exclusion. Still, though, she is very hungry, so she slices the top of the pouch and dips a spoon into the deep red liquid inside. She sniffs, then carefully takes a sip.

Fear. Fear and terror, burning like acid, burning like muscles pushed to their limit as they run, as they fight, as they’re beaten down and struggle against the overwhelming power of—

Georgia puts her spoon down. “Very interesting spicing.”

Her host smiles and salutes her with its knife. “Turmeric. Specially grown.”

The hulking servitors come to take her plate away, but it keeps eating its meal slowly, pausing frequently to discuss various architectural points in the room. The colorful banners, apparently, are antique contrade flags from the Palio de Siena horserace, and the table, interestingly, took thirty-five people to make.

Eventually it finishes, and servants clear its plate too. It wipes its face delicately with a probably-also-flesh napkin, then clasps its hands and leans on the table. “So. We were discussing names. You see, I must admit to a bit of dissimulation, as I was able to determine your name from your personal effects. Georgia…Johnson, I believe it is?”

Georgia tenses, then sighs and nods. “That is the name I give most people, yes.”

“But that is not the name you always gave…there was another name, long ago, was there not?”

If Georgia is flustered by this, she gamely hides it with a light laugh and a wave. “Well, most vampires go through several, don’t they?”

“A good many, but not all.” It spreads its hands. “I, for instance, have not. They have called me many things, but since the beginning I have always been…well, me. But I ask as to the other name, for purposes of my own.” It leans forward. “You fought the Omen War, did you not?”

Georgia goes still. “I did…though I was very young at the time.”

“We were all young once.”

“Indeed. Anyway, I was certainly not suitable for any kind of frontline battle, you understand, but…” she shrugs, “Well, the frontline came to me.”

“It has a habit of doing that.” It taps its chin. “And what did you do, when that line arrived?”

She shrugs again. “I ended up spending a couple hundred years sleeping under a collapsed chapel.”

It nods slowly. “Lucky for you. More so I think than you realize.”

Georgia cocks her head. “Why is that?”

“Because I also saw the Omen War,” it says with a smile. “Though it wasn’t from your perspective, of course.”

Georgia blinks at this a moment, then laughs it of lightly. “Oh, well certainly not, I’d imagine it was from the other side.”

“You’d imagine correctly.”

“And…were you more closely acquainted with the front line?” Georgia asks politely.

“I was the front line.” Its face goes cooly flat. “Tell me, this chapel that you were embedded beneath, what were the circumstances that lead you to it?”

Georgia’s gaze turns inward a moment, remembering. “I believe I was fleeing because the Chantry was destroyed. In Bratislava.”

Her host sighs and leans back. “Ahh, Bratislava, it’s a beautiful town. Not what it was, of course, but then, what is?”

Georgia shrugs. “Everything changes.”

“Everything but us.” Its face falls again. “Do you know what attacked your chapel in Bratislava?”

Georgia shakes her head slowly. “I don’t.”

It watches her a moment. “I do.”

Georgia blinks. “Do you? Will you tell me?”

“I might.” It drags its long fingers slowly across the table top “What was your name, back then?” it asks coyly.

Georgia frowns. “I see. Is that the way of it?”

“It can be that way or it can be another.” It looks at her sharply, fingers still tracing the bone table. “I could force you to tell me, but that would be uncivilized.”

Georgia meets its gaze and nods. “Indeed, especially under the laws of hospitality.”

It chuckles. “The laws of hospitality do permit for certain…exigencies.”

“Such as forcibly extracting the true name of an individual?”

It blinks. “True Name? No, I doubt you even know it. Proper name. And not necessarily, but when it’s an enemy met in the field, well…thats another matter.”

“And am I an enemy met in the field?” Georgia asks softly.

It smiles and cants its head at her. “Well, you were at Bratislava.”

“Yes, but your side vanquished me at that point. That battle is concluded.”

“And yet here you sit. The battle is over but the war is not. Your clan still exists. As does mine.”

“That is true, but they are not necessarily at war….”

It lifts an eyebrow at her. Its gaze wanders the room idly, coming to rest on the banners in the rafters over their head. “My clan joined with the Sabbat, yours with the Camarilla. We are absolutely at war. But then what my clan did has little bearing on me. I am, after all, the lord of my own manor.” It looks back to her, spreading its arms grandly. “So…if you will not tell me your name, perhaps I will tell you mine. My name is Orlando. I have been called other things, but that is my name.”

Georgia nods slowly, but the name doesn’t seem to ring any bells for her. “It’s a lovely name.”

“Thank you. It has suited me for some time. Now I wonder…what is it that you, a Tremere of Bratislava, would be doing here in my house? You come from the Shadowlands, you say? The Shadowlands could have placed you anywhere in the world and yet they placed you here. With me.” It watches her a moment. “Why, do you wonder, did they do this?

Georgia hesitates. “…Have you been there? They’re kind of dark.”

“I have been there, once or twice, but again, that doesn’t answer my question as to why.”

Georgia shrugs. “I honestly have no clue. I was there, and then I was here.”

Orlando tsks at her. “Ms…Georgia Johnson, you are not telling me the whole truth. I have tasted your blood, I have tasted the taste of…soul consumption on it. Soul rending…. And I have glimpsed the soul you rent, which is a fascinating glimpse.”

Georgia sighs. “It wasn’t a particularly good soul, and I am a little concerned about having it inside me at this point.”

“As you should be. But then, the fact that the Tremere eat their own is not surprising to me. Ive known that for some time.” It stares at her a few long moments, then gestures to one of the servants crouched against the wall. The thing brings over a decanter and pours them each a goblet of steaming red liquid. “So,” Orlando says, lifting its glass, “What will you do now?”

Georgia eyes her glass of blood, but, with the taste of the the…haggis-thing still fresh in her mind, decides not to try it.“Well, I’d like to go back to San Francisco.”

“And what would you do there? Such strange things I hear from San Francisco these nights. Whispers of ancient vampires long since thought dead, risen to afflict the world once more. Vampires with names I know.”

“What names would those be?”

“Latin ones,” Orlando says mildly.

She tenses. “There….have been a few of those about….”

“And what is your arrangement with them?”

“A few of them are…cordial toward me. One of them is openly hostile and murderous.” She shrugs. “But then he seems to be that way toward everyone so I’m not taking it personally.”

It nods for a few moments, holding its goblet up against the candlelight and gazing into it. “…And what of the werewolves?”

Georgia hesitates. “I haven’t seen…many of those, recently,” she says carefully.

“Really? That’s an odd thing.”

“Why?”

It twirls the stem in its fingers. “Because I didn’t find you alone.”

It takes a moment or two for comprehension to dawn. “Oh! Did you find the werewolf cub?”

It smirks. “I found something.”

“Is it here?”

“It is.” It brings the glass to its lips.

“Can I see it?”

It drinks silently for a few moments before lifting the goblet again and gazing at it in pleasure. “…No,” it whispers.

Georgia stares. “…Is it ok?”

“Not tremendously. It was…quite agitated. They are that way.”

“It was probably just frightened.”

“It had reason to be.” Orlando glances at her and smiles.

She glances at the fleshbeast servitors in the corners. “What became of it?”

It places the glass down and runs its hands in slow circles along the table. “Nothing yet. I wished to understand what it was doing here first. But I had thought to make…a masterpiece of it. A truly inspired piece.”

Georgia watches its hands. “I…would kind of prefer that you didn’t….”

“Why should I not? What is this…cub to you? Do you claim it?”

Georgia sits up. “I do claim it.”

“By what right?”

“I rescued it.”

“And now you would rescue it from me?”

“Yes.”

“Interesting…and by what means will you effect this rescue?”

“By asking you politely,” she says assuredly.

Orlando stares at her a moment, then chuckles softly. “Presume for a moment that I commit the unpardonably rude action of denying your request. What then, I wonder?”

She looks into its eyes. “I would offer you my given name.”

It returns her gaze and nods. “A valuable thing, but not as valuable as a werewolf cub, and certainly not as valuable as what I suspect this werewolf cub may be.”

“Oh? What do you suspect?”

It waves a hand vaguely. “Nothing concrete, but something worth keeping imprisoned by the Tremere. I would ask you how I know you will not simply return it to its cage, but then…I cannot credibly say that I care. But…I am intrigued by the notion that you would rescue this cub from me.” It smirks. “Perhaps I will let you try. Perhaps…we shall play a game.”

Georgia frowns. “Oh…those really aren’t my favorite thing….”

“Oh, but this will be a wonderful game.”

She sighs. “Oh dear….”

Orlando folds both hands firmly in front of it on the table. “You are my guest for these three nights. If in these three nights you can lay hands upon this werewolf and remove it from the custody of myself and my associates, then you may take it with you at the conclusion. But, bear in mind that I will instruct my associates to kill you if you try.” It waits for her nod of understanding before continuing. “Every night, we shall meet and dine and discuss your progress, in perfect peace I assure you. But the rest of the time, well…you will be hunting, and you will be hunted.”

Georgia slumps back in her chair. Part of her says she should probably spend those three nights trying to collect enough resources to make herself a circle out of here, but part of her—a strange, alien part of her—actually wants to find the werewolf cub.

She stares grumpily around the room. “Would you mind giving me a tour of the castle first?”

“Oh that is the work of days. It is a vast place, I have worked on it for some time.” Orlando gazes lovingly around the room, from the rafters to the fleshbeasts in the corners. “I find it gives me peace to work on such things. Peace that eluded me in your time.” Its gaze suddenly snaps back to Georgia, scalpel-sharp and just as cold. “I was not subtle when I destroyed your Chantry in Bratislava, Ms. Johnson. I was not subtle for most of that war, but then…neither was your clan.”

Georgia meets its gaze in silence. Its face softens after a few moments. “So, are we in agreement then? Let us toast on it.” It raises its goblet.

Georgia sighs and concedes the toast. She takes a tentative sip of her blood and is surprised that this…vintage…is actually drinkable. She downs the glass as quickly as decorum will allow. Orlando smirks and signals the servant to refill her glass.

“One more request, if I may,” Orlando says.

“Yes?” Georgia says between gulps sips.

It smiles thinly and leans over the table. “To the best of your ability…do try not to destroy any more of my artwork.”

#

ANTIS’S UNKNOWN LOCATION

Antis wakes to the sound of waves, curling softly over a rocky shore. A light breeze brings the smell of the sea, as well as the warm, cloying smell of the day’s sunlight on dry grass. He opens his eyes to find himself in a field, sprawled under a clear sky littered with more stars than he’s yet seen in San Francisco.

He doesn’t have time to take a bearing, though, as his gaze is immediately drawn to the three figures silhouetted against the stars, two of which are holding swords to his throat.

The man without a sword, dark-haired and mustached, looms over him, one foot braced up against a rock, fiddling with something in his hand. “Now…what have we here?” he says softly. His accent is lilting, hauntingly familiar, though it takes Anstis a few moments to place it. Welsh.

Anstis moves to get up but the swordsmen dip their blades closer. Anstis compromises by levering to a seat instead, sweeping his arm in an approximation of a bow. “Captain Anstis, at ‘yer service. And who might you be, good sir?” Anstis examines the man as his eyes adjust to the gloom. His face is a stranger, but something about him seems familiar. “Have we met?”

“I do not believe we have.” The man looks down to the object in his hands. “You were captain of the Good Fortune, a vessel of the Brotherhood of the Coast, were you not?”

Antis tenses, peering at him closer. The man’s clothes are dark, shaded in grays and blacks, but Anstis is surprised to realize they are similar to his own: tailored pants; buckled, high fitted boots; a bloused shirt of dark silk; and a heavy, embroidered coat cut in a respectably fashionable style. The man shifts and starlight glints off pistols and a sword slung from a wide leather belt. Anstis also finally realizes what’s in the man’s hands: his own hat.

“I may have sailed under such banners in the past,” Anstis mutters cautiously.

The man nods, toying with the feathers on the hat. “And whose banner sail you under now?”

Anstis shrugs. “With fortune, only my own.”

“With fortune? Who has fortune these nights, good or otherwise.” The man chuckles. “All men sail under a banner.”

Anstis eyes him silently. “I’m sorry, I did not get your name,” he rumbles.

“I am the man whose men stand at your throat with swords. Does this not serve as name enough?” He says this softly, demeanor still calm, but the power rolling off him punctuates his words like a knife. “As to yours, I have heard the name of Thomas Anstis,  a captain recently returned from the graveyard of the sea.”

“And who was it that speaks my name these nights?”

“A number do, but one in particular I think you would know.” He meets Anstis’s gaze. “One who deals in the way of shadows.”

Anstis tenses further. “I know…a few in particular by that….”

“I should imagine you do, for the alternative would be that he lied to me, and he has never yet done so.” He eyes him. “What clan do you claim, Anstis? For you must claim one to still be standing before me. …Or sitting, as the case may be.”

“You do not know?”

“I do not. But it is possible it is irrelevant. We all die with our heads sliced off.” On cue, one of the swordsmen twists his blade, glittering with reflected starlight.

Anstis eyes the leader cautiously, not entirely trusting what the man says he does and does not already know. “Gangrel,” he says finally.

The man lifts an eyebrow and leans back, taking his foot off the rock. “A Gangrel of the waves? Who finds his way to my island, under odd circumstances to say the least. From where do you come to be here, Mr. Anstis? Captain Anstis, if it please you.”

“A land of fire and shadow,” Anstis grumbles.

“Mmm.” The man nods, gazing to the distance, toward the sound of the coast. “I have known many in my time that could speak of such. I was at Krakatoa. I was in Sicily when the Americans invaded. I sailed the Philippines and the coast of Cathay when the pirate lords commanded. I rode the waves off the coast of Africa when men set themselves as kings of Madagascar or raided the lands of shipping off the Horn. I have seen many lands of fire, and some of shadow. I have travelled to a great many places, but I sense that you have travelled to some I have not seen.”

The man’s voice and the call of the ocean awakens something in Anstis. He follows the man’s gaze toward the water he can’t see, obscured by the tall grass. He has been in the modern nights for some few weeks now, and—except for the brief encounter with the sharks—has been on land that entire time. Honor and the call to battle has kept him in our company, but his blood calls him to the sea. “And you some that I have not seen,” he mutters longingly. “I have not traveled as far and wide as you have.”

The man eyes him critically and nods. “In time all things are possible. But you sailed the Caribbean once. I did as well, under circumstances somewhat different, but only in the approximation.” He folds his arms, tucking the hat under one elbow. “So how comes a Gangrel who is a captain to my island so shortly after I have heard his name?”

Anstis shakes himself out of his reverie. “That I am not entirely sure. Where there any others that came with?”

“None. None that I saw.”

Anstis frowns. “Well then it would seem the Tremere is not who she claims to be,” he mutters to himself.

Upon those words, the swordsmen tense. The man, though, chuckles. “A Tremere, you have dealt with? This was an error, sir, the Tremere are neither to be trusted nor trifled with.”

Anstis shrugs. “Means to an end.”

“And what end and what means were those?”

“Leaving the Shadowlands.”

The man straightens, appearing genuinely impressed. “You sailed the Shadowlands? Few men would claim such things. What brought you to such a shore?”

“A man by the name of Himmler.”

“Himmler.” His face darkens. “I know this name. I have not met him.”

“And you never will,” Anstis says with a smirk.

The man eyes him a long moment. Anstis eyes him back. Finally, the man nods to his guards. They step back, sheathing the swords. Anstis hesitates, then climbs all the way to his feet. The man looks Anstis in the eye, then hands him back his hat.

“I have heard your name,” the man says, “Long ago, perhaps even while you were alive. I knew your captains, Howell Davis and Bartholomew Roberts. They consulted me once, many years ago. They asked for my blessing, as it was customary then for the greatest ones to do.” The man gazes toward the ocean, now visible to Anstis, stretching velvet-black to the horizon. “I granted it, not that it did them much good. The navy struck them down, as I told them it would, but those are the hazards of our profession, are they not?”

Once again, Anstis follows his gaze into his own deeper thoughts. “Indeed, though I still I find myself drawn to the sea.”

“As do we all. I would not trust a man who was not, though I have been forced to trust some.” The man turns back to Anstis. “What purpose have you on my island? Or if not on my island, in my seas?”

Anstis frowns and turns to examine the land around them, rolling grassy hillsides reaching up to a high plateau. “To be true, I do not know which sea or which island I am on currently….”

“You stand on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, on the very edge of the greatest sea there is.”

Anstis nods, though these words don’t mean as much to him as he would wish. “So not far from San Francisco, then?”

“Some 360 leagues to the south, though ships move quicker than in your day.” The man folds his arms again. “Did you find what you sought in the Shadowlands?”

“That and a great deal more.”

He nods. “And what shall you seek for now?”

“Rewards for one, revenge for another.”

“Revenge?” the man echoes, voice lightly amused. “And who it is that wronged you, Captain?”

Anstis glowers, still staring into the distance. “A great many, some alive some dead.”

“And might there be any that I know? I know a great many names.” He makes a show of glancing around the empty hillside. “I know that there is…another in these waters. Another whom I have been seeking.” He pauses. “Not of my own volition, mind you, but even I must bow before the commands of others. Or perhaps the requests,” he says, a mocking sneer playing at the corner of his mouth.

Anstis nods, suddenly wary again. The man doesn’t seem like one of Perpenna’s agents, but nothing can be taken for granted anymore. “And…who commands your loyalty?”

The man snorts. “Commands my loyalty? None, but there is one that has a claim to it.”

“…By respect, or by…other means?” Anstis asks carefully.

“Many means. Respect perhaps, perhaps not. The one who commands me is mercurial, but so am I. It was he who told me your name.” The man looks over Antis’s clothes, which for all intents and purposes are more colorful and baroque versions of his own. “It was he who bade me discover if you were what you said you were.”

Antis nods slowly, marking the position of the two swordsmen out of the corners of his eyes. “…And what have you decided?”

The man stares at Anstis flatly, no movement but the breeze rippling his coat. Finally, he takes a breath to respond. “That you are what you claim, and also other things. Some things that may be of use, some things that are merely horrors in the night.”

Antis nods. “We are each so much more than we claim.”

“Considerably. But then, I have made no claim as yet, and you have made many. Perhaps I should introduce myself.” He inclines his head. “My name is Morgan.”

Anstis immediately freezes again. Suddenly the clothes and the passing familiarity of his face make sense. “…Captain…Morgan?”

Henry Morgan.” He glances back to the sea. “I was a captain once. I was also a governor, and a king. A general and an admiral, all at once. And I have been other things too. A servant, even a slave. A freebooter and a pirate.” He chuckles lightly. “Though we called ourselves something else….”

Anstis, though, needs no formal introduction for this man. Though Morgan sailed some half a century before Anstis’s time, Anstis knows him as not only the most successful pirate in the Caribbean, but possibly the most successful pirate in the history of the world. He was practically mythical in his own time. Most pirates—during his time and others—lead short, fast lives that escorted them to hard deaths. Morgan, by contrast, captured so much treasure during his career that he bought out half of Parliament and died the Governor of Jamaica.

Anstis has to fight to keep from staring. Of all the wonders he’s encountered in the modern world, this is probably one of the most wondrous.

“So, Captain,” Morgan chuckles. “You seek rewards and revenge in these nights. Tell me, how do you plan to acquire them?

Anstis pulls himself together and smooths at his coat. “I’ve only been awake in this time for a short period. Many things have changed….and some have not.” He shrugs. “I have yet to decide my place in this realm.”

“Then perhaps I can make a suggestion?” Morgan leans closer, lowering his voice. “I seek a man who sails on this coast. He is a kindred of some power. His name is Accio.”

Anstis nods, eyes narrowing. “I have heard this name….”

“I believe you have. He commands a ship, in fact he commands a fleet of them. Somewhere up this coast. I am asked to rid the coast of him.”

Anstis stares across the ocean’s unbroken expanse. “I imagine few would weep.”

“Very few. But he has not survived this long by being careless and foolish. His fleet is well-equipped, with weapons beyond your imagining. Pilfered from…God knows where. Nevertheless, I propose to kill him and take what he has. All the cargo in his vaults is promised to me, in payment for this task. All but one thing, a scepter, which once belonged to another.” Morgan waves a hand dismissively. “A bauble of some sort. But if you are who you claim to be, perhaps you can be of help to me in this.”

Anstis nods slowly, processing this, but luckily his pirate instincts kick in and take over. “Perhaps. For a share of the bounty,” he grumbles.

Morgan chuckles. “I cannot offer a share to any who will not sign the articles,” he says slyly.

(Jason: “Out of character, just to be clear: When a pirate ship was ‘commissioned,’ in almost every single case, the crew would draw up a se of articles. It was basically a charter of how they were going to operate. Share out the loot, who was going to be paid what for getting wounded, what the punishments were for fucking with the captain, things like that. Roberts had a set, Davis had a set, Blackbeard had a set—“
Jim: “But some were never recovered, right?”
Jason: “Yes, most were destroyed with the pirates. But we know almost every ship had a set. So when he says ‘the articles’ that’s what he means.”
Me: “Keep to the Code….”)

So…in other words, he is asking Anstis to sign up for Team Morgan. On the one hand, it has been some time—centuries, even—since Anstis sailed under another captain, and the idea is discomforting at best.

But on the other hand, if Anstis is looking to ball so hard, he might as well sign on with a pro.

Anstis strokes his beard, eyeing Morgan. “What makes you think you can take out this heavily fortified target?”

Morgan smiles and gestures for Anstis to follow. He walks down the hill, toward the sound of waves on the shore.

“I have blood,” Morgan says as they trudge through the grass, “Thick blood, and a crew willing to do their share. But Accio has men of his own.” He cants his head toward Anstis. “A Gangrel would be of use in this, for I am not Gangrel and neither are any of my crew.  But, of my primary means….” He falls silent as they reach the edge of a cliff, looking down onto a cove.

Below them is a ship the likes of which Anstis could never have conceived of his his wildest dreams, or perhaps nightmares. Absolutely massive, well over 500 feet long if it’s a foot, made of solid metal and painted in a grey so dark at any moment it seems like it’s about to slip into the shadows between the waves.

(Jim: “Out of character, what type of ship is it?”
Jason: “A warship. A WW2-era heavy cruiser. Portland Class.”)

There are no masts, no ropes, but the ship reaches to towering heights, covered with crenellations and structures that are as inscrutable as they are sinister.  Bulbous structures erupt from the middeck, with long barrels that look an awful lot like cannon, but each are over a dozen feet long. The shadows of men move about the deck, working surely in the near-darkness.

One feature of the ship, though, practically glows in the darkness: the name of the ship, painted in white paint along the bow.

Revenge.

Morgan gazes down proudly. “This is my ship, Captain, bearing a name which I believe you are acquainted with, or at least seek.” He chuckles. “She has served my purposes for some time. Near on fifty years now I have sailed her.”

Anstis nods. She is the most lethal-looking ship he has ever seen, and it takes all the willpower he has not to outright drool. “A fine vessel,” he says instead.

“This ship carries the means to blast Accio’s flotilla apart, but I do not fancy my chances against him alone. He has a dozen ships at least, of mixed type. None as lethal as this, but he does have other means. Magic, or facsimiles thereof. Whereas I…” Morgan taps the pistols tucked in his belt, not all of which are modern, “I am too much the traditionalist. I prefer to rely on a cutlass and a crew of cutthroats, animated by a desire for plunder and gold.”

Morgan looks fondly on his ship another long moment, then turns to Anstis. “Will you sail with me, Captain? When we annihilate Accio’s flotilla, and take back what he’s stolen, I will be happy to offer you a share, and passage back to the city on the Golden Gate.”

Anstis stands quietly, momentarily overwhelmed by the sight of the ship before him, and the even greater dignitas of the legend standing beside him. Caution still nags at him, though…. “I accept your offer on one condition,” he growls finally.

“What is your condition?”

“…Who is it who has sent you on this task?”

Morgan nods. “I think you have some idea of this, Captain, but to assuage your fears, I was asked to accomplish this as a favor to a kindred I have had long occasion to know…” he glances at Anstis, “Marcus Sertorius Posthumus.”

Anstis accepts this with a stoic nod, though inside relief is dumping off him like ballast water. “I have known him for a short time. He is…not bad, as far as ancient ones go.”

“He is many things, and bad is one of them,” Morgan says seriously. “But not all. I have known him in many conditions and under many circumstances, for a great deal of time.”

Antis nods. “Well, under these circumstances I would gladly serve with you.”

“I am glad to hear it. I would hate to think that his judgement had failed him at the end. I have always held great store by his opinion in these matters. I have had to. After all…” Morgan casts a smile at Anstis and begins to descend the slope, “…He was my sire.”

The two swordsmen follow Morgan, passing Anstis without a glance. Anstis stands another moment on the hillside, processing all this…then smooths his coat, straightens his hat, and swaggers after them.

#

GOLDEN GATE PARK

I follow Sophia around the gently heaving body of the dragon, toward the exit. The moment she reaches the tunnel, she shifts down into wolf form and bolts. I jog along after, but she is through the corridor and back up the ladder before I’m even halfway back. Still I continue, climbing back up into the main collections room.

I find Sophia in human form, standing amongst the tables and desks next to the trap door, tapping on her phone furiously. She turns as I climb into the room, face tense with fear.

And the tension only increases as she looks at me.

I stop. “Girl? What’s going on?”

“A whole lot of things,” she says, voice quavering. “What the hell did you do to him?”

“To the dragon? I don’t know, Boss did something to the sword.” I turn from her to root around the lab. “Look, I gotta find a key—“

“Tom, you can’t…you can’t let that thing in the sarcophagus out….” she whispers.

I shrug, peering into drawers. “Well we can’t let that dragon out either, so…”

“Look, I know he tried to eat you and everything, but y-you….” she stutters, grasping for words, “…You can’t kill that dragon!”

I snort, still focused on the tables. “Frankly I don’t think we can either, but Boss isn’t going to leave till we open that other sarcophagus.”

“You don’t understand, I….” her breathing increases. “…I can’t let him kill him.”

I freeze. “What do you mean?” I ask carefully.

“He’s a Mokole, He’s…” she shakes her head in frustration. “It’s hard to explain, it’s impossible to explain.

I tense, dread settling over me, and slowly turn to her. My mind races, desperately searching for something to say, babbling incoherently to itself—(Me: “—Because oh, great! It’s after 10!! Here we go!!!”)

I slam the drawer shut and pace the length of the lab, glaring at her. “That dragon is running around talking about how the werewolves are protecting this city from him, and now, through no fault of our own, the werewolves are gone, and now he’s going to go running loose! So, what, you want me to let him!?”

“No, just….” She groans and tugs her hair. “Look, I don’t know, Tom! This has all just kinda happened!”

I’m suddenly reminded of childhood arguments with my sister and my subconscious responds instinctively. “You think!?” I sneer with the full force of my sarcasm.

“Yes I think! You want me to let a Mokole get eaten by the Devourer of Innocence! I can’t do it! I can’t!”

“Fine! Well, that dragon is probably healing as we speak, we just need to open that sarcophagus and GTFO—“

“He said he wanted to kill the dragon, Tom,” she says, voice serious.

She’s right, though I hadn’t fully realized it till this moment. I drop my arms in exasperation. “Well, what the hell do you expect me to do about it?”

“Not…help him.” She shakes her head weakly. “You don’t understand what a Mokole is.”

“And what is it, then? Besides obviously a dick?”

Her face clenches and she pulls the jacket—my jacket—tighter around her. “They’re…look, I know it sounds stupid, but…they’re like the Earth’s memory. The story goes that when the Earth created a bunch of us shifters, we were made to be the fighters, they were made to remember everything. There aren’t that many of them around, so if you kill them it’s like…burning a library down.” She stares at me a moment before continuing. “Tom, I know he’s dangerous, but he wasn’t attacking anyone until someone blew up all of us.  And now that ‘boss’ of yours wants to, what, skin him and make him into a purse?” She shakes her head. “It’s bad enough how many of us he has on his head, let alone one of these.”

I sigh. “You know I cant just say no to him, that’s…practically a death sentence for me.” Actually I don’t know if that’s true, I haven’t yet tried to directly oppose Marcus, but considering everything else I’ve seen and heard…my hopes aren’t high.

Sophia watches me a few moments. When she speaks again, her tone is suddenly cool. “Well. There’s another way.” She looks straight into my eyes, speaking slowly and intently. “He’s just been staked, he can’t have much blood. We can kill him.”

I remain motionless, but the dread suddenly surges up my spine in a tidal wave. “Girl…I can’t do that,” I whisper.

“Why not?”

“Cause I’m fucking bound to him for one thing!” I shout, throwing my arms out. “I don’t know how exactly it works, but I’m pretty sure that’s fucking rule #1!”

“So you’re just going to let him do this?” she says icily.

“Well, as Paul is so fond of saying, I’m just the muscle around here,” I grumble.

“Tom,” she says, stepping forward, “I can’t. Let him. Kill the Mokole.” Her tone is firm, with the raw power of teenage anger bolstered by the conviction drilled into her by her heritage, but at the same time, I can sense the fear around the edges, the cracks forming in resolute shell.

I glare at her. “So what the hell are you going to do?”

Her face clenches in pain, and just like that, the shell shatters. “I haven’t got the first fucking idea what I can do to him!” she cries, pacing the narrow aisle.

“So were in the same boat!”

She shakes her head earnestly, still pacing. “Not really, cause I have to try something.”

“What?”

She stops, resting one hand on a table. “Well. I know what worked on the other vampires you sent me at.”

I take a step back. She’s referring, of course, to Carlos, whom we hunted down together in Bayshore, and Issac, who was one of the many asshole vampires I rescued her from the night we first met. Both of them very different situations, but both of them ultimately taken out via the same way.

Elemental fire.

“You couldn’t stop me if I really tried, Tom,” she says softly, still avoiding my gaze. “He might be able to, but you couldn’t. You know that.”

I stare at her grimly. Thing is, I don’t know that. She may be a werewolf, but she’s a young werewolf, I’m a hell of a lot stronger and faster than I was when we first met, and have a lot more resources at my disposal. My subconscious suddenly takes note of the position of my sword and my whip; the latter laced with silver, the former able to instantly become it. “So you kill Marcus. Then what?” I ask flatly.

She sneers. “What makes you think I have an endgame here? I don’t know what happens after that!”

“Well, I’ll tell you what happens after that!” I snap. “This dragon now has nothing to stop him and will go rampaging through the city—“

She whirls on me, hands still clenched against the table. “And if we kill the dragon then what does Perpenna have to stop him?”

“I don’t know!!! We just keep importing in more shit to deal with the previous shit! Maybe we should try fucking cane toads next!”

Her eyes widen as they stare at me, anger draining out, replaced once again by fear. “Tom, I…I don’t know, but I can’t let him do it. You’re bound to him, but, I’m bound to fight him. I know werewolves who can recite to you the names of every Garou he’s killed. The list is in three digits. Even if half the stories about him are made up, it’s bad. Really bad.”

Yeah, I know, I want to say, but I bite it back. I believe the horrors and the atrocities, but I also believe the pain and regret on his face when he told me. “Well,” I say flatly, “Sometimes people realize their mistakes.”

Her gaze suddenly hardens. “Yeah, and sometimes they don’t.”

We stare at each other across the table, the unspoken implications of that statement hanging between us….

….And that’s when Paul suddenly climbs up through the trapdoor. He freezes halfway out, staring at us. “Something wrong?”

“Paul, we need your skills,” I say flatly, still staring at her. “Sophia thinks we’re not going to be able to resolve this situation without somebody dying, and I’m trying to reassure her that that will not be the case.”

She throws her arms out. “You just told me you wanted the key so you can pop whatever is in there out and kill the Mokole!”

Paul holds up a hand. “If we can stop it, were not going to let him kill the dragon. I just want to get out of here.”

“Why’d he send you up here, then? For this?” Still glaring at me, Sophia pulls out a large, box-like object from under the jacket, hung around her neck on a chain. The Tremere key. “I found it next to the dragon. While you were discussing killing him.”

Paul climbs all the way into the room. He waits until Sophia looks at him and quietly casts Awe. “Listen, we’re not going to kill the dragon. We’re going to get van Brugge out of here and we’re just going to leave.”

Her expression wavers. “How in the world are you going to guarantee that? These are elder vampires, you cant make them do anything!”

Paul draws himself up. “No I can’t, but you know what all vampires are in the end? Lazy! They don’t want to get their hands dirty if they don’t have to! Everyone just wants to get out of here!”

“You don’t think things changed a little, what with what’s just happened? And what happens if I give you this key and it turns out your analysis of these two elder vampires who have been around for thousands of years isn’t right?”

“Then I will die defending the dragon that wanted to eat me,” Paul says flatly, still looking into her eyes.

Sophia hesitates. She stares at Paul, glances at me—half-turned away and leaning sulkily against a table—then turns back to Paul. “If you’re wrong, everybody dies. You understand that, right?

Paul nods once. “I do, but I’m going to put a bit of faith in no one wanting to kill right now.”

“You’re putting faith in that one not wanting to kill? Why?” She leans forward, face plaintive. “Why are you dealing with that thing, Paul?”

“Because he spared me on a few occasions, he helped me out, and…well, while you may know all these terrible things he’s done I haven’t seen him act that way so far.”

“You’ve known him for months. He’s been around for thousands of years.” Paul doesn’t respond. She turns to me with the same pleading face, silently asking why.

I shrug. “I don’t have a lot of people left around anymore, so I take what I can get,” I grumble.

“Even that thing?”

I watch her silently for a long moment, arms folded.

She straightens, glancing between us, breathing heavily. “If he kills that Mokole,” she says slowly, “I will find a way to kill him. And both of you.” With that, she takes the key off her neck and hands it to Paul.

Paul nods once. “Fair enough,” he says, and descends the ladder without another word.

I hesitate a moment, still leaning against the table, watching her out of the side of my eyes. Once again I see her veneer start to crack as her body shudders with panic and adrenaline, looking way too small in my oversized coat.

She jumps back as I stand up, staring at me with narrow eyes. I stare back. “You can keep the coat, girl,” I mutter and crouch for the ladder.

I catch a brief glimpse of her glancing away in pain before I descend back into the pit.

#

Marcus is in front of the dragon as we re-enter the cavern, examining it calmly, his sword held loosely in one hand. He turns as we approach. “Well?”

“We’re getting van Brugge out. We’re leaving the dragon here. Alive.” Paul says flatly, striding forward.

Marcus blinks. “We’re what?”

“Listen, he knows about Tesseract, it’s highly visible, so all the risk is on my head—“

Marcus blinks more. “Forgive me, your plan is to allow the dragon to not catch me by having it burn your company down?

Paul shrugs. “I’m betting he wont burn my company down. He’s been living here pretty peaceably for the last decade.”

“That was prior to all of us kicking its door down.”

“I’ll leave an apology note.”

Marcus bursts into laughter. “A note?! Look, Paul, I understand that you have this relationship with the werewolves, whatever it is, but this is not the same thing. This is a Mokole. The stories about Mokole are not small.” He glances at the dragon. “The…reality of Mokole is not small. If we kill it, I am not convinced it will even stay dead without van Brugge’s help. And you want me to leave this thing to take revenge?”

“Yes,” Paul says firmly.

Marcus stares. “…Are you insane?”

“No. I simply have faith where others lack it.”

“Faith in what!? It’s a dragon!”

“It’s a thinking being.”

So is Perpenna!!”

Paul cants his head. “That’s a fair point, but Perpenna isn’t acting in defense of his own home. This guy, dickish though he is, didn’t come searching for us. We came here.”

Marcus stares at him blankly, then turns to me. “I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but can you talk some sense into this man?”

I stare back, arms folded, then look away.

His face darkens. “Don’t tell me, you don’t want to kill it either….”

“I don’t know, Boss,” I mutter, “I’m just the muscle.”

He stares between us. “Wonderful. What exactly happened to the two of you out on those islands? If you leave this dragon, it’s going to devour you. You personally. I know this with absolute certainty. It thinks you sired me.” He sees our expressions and sighs. “I had to keep it distracted while you people were running away, I used an old trick. One I’m not fond of. It thinks you prey on and sire child vampires, and it does not like this notion.”

“Neither do we,” Paul mutters. He strides part Marcus to the sarcophagus and slots in the key. There’s a loud chunk, then dust clouds off the casket as the lid releases an inch. Paul levers it open and we all step forward.

Van Brugge is lying inside, looking far more deathly than Marcus did. Gaunt and skeletal, with huge rends across his torso, shredding parts of his robes into tatters. His weapons and Tremere bling are missing, and of course he is staked. And through his gaping mouth, we can see he is missing his fangs.

“How did he wind up here,” Paul mutters.

“If I had to guess, I’d say the dragon took him from the Chantry,” Marcus says. “He’s low on blood, though. In fat he might not have any at all.”

Paul flips the lid all the way open and turns to us. “Alright, now that we’ve seen van Brugge, I think we can agree that he’s in no condition to help in any way. So for the moment it seems our means of destroying that beast exceed our grasp. Lets take van Brugge to Bell. Forget about the dragon.”

Marcus stares, his sword tip dropping to the ground. “Forget about the dragon?! Should we forget about Perpenna while were at it? Why in the world would I forget about this?!”

“Because there’s enough death and violence out there without seeking out more.”

“Who was seeking who? Last I checked, a Corax lured the five of us into a place where a dragon ambushed, and I’m not in the habit of taking those who try to kill me lightly—

Marcus pauses suddenly, face falling. “…This isn’t why you want me to spare the dragon…your damned werewolf asked me to, didn’t she?” Neither of us answer, but Marcus glares and takes a step closer. “And I presume that if I don’t concede to killing this dragon, I’m going to have an angry werewolf waiting for me?”

I glance at Paul. “Likely,” he says.

“Well, she wouldn’t be the first,” Marcus sneers and turns to me. “Well, Mr. Muscle, this isn’t a democracy, but you haven’t lacked for opinions in the past, so tell me…which plan do you prefer?”

I turn to regard the dragon. Kill the dragon, don’t kill the dragon…. The options are clear, as are the choice that each implies, but my mind races to find an option three. It seems like the main problem is if we let the dragon live, he will come after us—or the city itself. So…if he somehow wasn’t able to get to us—

“Can you…put him somewhere?” I say slowly. “Somewhere…not this reality?”

Marcus scoffs. “He’d suffocate, in minutes. Besides I’m not sure I could fit him.”

I droop. “So theres no air there?”

“Theres nothing in the Abyss.”

“Yeah, that’s kinda implied by the name,” I mutter, then a new idea comes to me “…But aren’t there other places? Places other people can access?”

Marcus shrugs. “I’m no mage.”

“No, but we know a couple.”

Marcus rolls his eyes. “Great, because thats what this situation needs is mages. A stable element.”

I glare and draw myself up, gesturing at the beast. “There’s a fucking dragon under the natural history museum, I think we’ve gone totally over the fucking shark at this point! In fact, we literally jumped it earlier this evening!”

Marcus glares back. “If you want to call mages up and do whatever it is you do, thats all well and good, but I need a reason to walk out of this place without this things head.”

“Maybe we should call Dr. vonNatsi,” Paul says thoughtfully, “He might be able to ward the dragon inside.” He pulls out his phone and tries to connect to the network again.

…and then the dragon starts to stir.

Everyone freezes and takes a step back.

“Can you put him under again?” Paul asks softly.

“I don’t have the blood,” Marcus mutters, “And in any event, I think we need to resolve this right now.” He turns to us, fixing us in a long stare “Do you have any reason for me to leave this thing alive besides your touching faith in the humanity of massive creatures of imminent destruction?”

“Cause we need more allies against Perpenna?” Paul offers.

“Allies like this I think I can do without. I need a reason, Paul, a reason better than the werewolf said so.”

Paul looks at the dragon for a long moment, slowly going a little misty-eyed. “Because its rare, and unique—“

Marcus glares. “So am I, so are you.”

“Then we should all be glad to share that reason….”

Marcus frowns at him and turns to me. “And you?”

Resignation settles over me like a cloud. No matter how strong I get, it seems that there are just too many things I am still powerless against. “If you kill him, then it’ll be a parting of the ways.” I glance at the darkened tunnel. “For some people.”

“Why, Tom Lytton, was that a threat?” he says, voice cool.

I shake my head, still staring at the tunnel, one hand drifting to my sword. “Not to you.”

Marcus is quiet a few moments, then turns to Paul. “And if this thing does wake up angry?”

“Then I hope I can calm it down.”

Marcus reels his head back. “You’d be here when it awakens? Why? And I want the real reason, not the pragmatic bullshit. You’re a Toreador, you don’t think that way.”

Paul looks at the dragon. “It’s…just so unique….” He remains like that a moment, then the unicorns and rainbows drop out of his voice. “And if we kill it, we wont have a dragon ally.”

Marcus barks a laugh. “What makes you think you can make this thing your ally? Mokole despise us with a hatred that goes throughout the ages. What in the world makes you think you can overcome that with some Presence?”

“Not Presence. Faith. Faith in humanity’s better nature.” Paul hesitates. “Also I think it hates Perpenna more than it hates us.”

Marcus stares at him. “And you’re willing to stake your life on that?”

“I’m willing to give it a shot.”

Marcus stares between us, face flickering between bemusement and disbelief. Finally he turns to the dragon, lifts his sword arm…and resheathes the gladius on his back.

“Well then,” he says smoothly, “If nothing else, it will be an inventive way to meet final death, won’t it.” He sighs and stares up at the white mound rumbling over us. “Alright then, Paul. Let’s see what your scaly friend has to say.”

END OF NIGHT.

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