Jim: “I want to play a Tzmitsce who is all about, like, free-range organic skin for his flesh-crafting.”
Me: “OMG, hipster Tzmitsce!”
Jim: “These flesh-chairs are locally-sourced!”
Me: “These skin-books are all fair-trade!”
With the guidance of the skin-map, Georgia finds her way through the sprawling manor to the library, an ornately decorated, hexagonal room lined with shelves of books, some of which are actually not bound in flesh. She picks her way through the overstuffed chairs, staring at the shelves, and eventually finds her way to a card catalog. The drawers themselves are wood, but the panel they’re embedded in is warm and pulsing. She frowns, then touches the drawers to Object Read them. She proceeds until she finds a drawer that Orlando touched. It has been weeks since it was here, but she can tell it fiddled with a card somewhere in the back.
(Kara: “Are the cards, like, in folders?”
Jason: “No…do you remember the card catalogs in the library?”
Kara: “I’ve…seen pictures of card catalogs.”
Me: “What? No, you would have had to have them in elementary school at least, you’re only a few years younger than us..”
Kara: “No. I mean, I remember learning that they existed, but I’ve never used one.”
Everyone else: *shocked stares*)
Georgia flips through the cards, starting at the back, but as she sifts she feels something weird. A thickness to one of the cards. She pulls it out and finds a scrap of paper wedged behind it. It’s regular paper, not flesh or cardstock, but it’s stained with old, dried blood. She pulls it out. Through the blood, she can make out a set of crude directions written in a shaky hand, listing things like, “5 paces forward,” and “left at the tree.” Object Read doesn’t tell her much about what the list leads to, but she can tell this piece of paper used to belong to the man who was here before. The man whose skin is now the map.
She puts the paper into her (inventory) bag and looks at the cards it was wedged between. They are written in a strange language—she recognizes it as some sort of Dacian or Greek—but she can’t read it. Frustrated, she puts them back in the drawer…but in reverse order.
(Jim: “DAMN, it feels good to be a gangsta!”)
She wanders the library, Object Reading things, trying to find clues about Orlando’s or the previous guest’s movements through the room, and finally winds up at a set of shelves whose books are labelled in German. With her new Himmler-derived language skills, she is able to read them, identifying them as Tremere books. Some of them are familiar, various books on hermetic lore, but one really stands out. A large, old, unmarked folio, bound in brown leather. There’s no title, but something about it seems strangely familiar. She pulls it off the shelf, cradling the worn spine and carefully cracking the yellowed pages.
And that’s when she realizes: this book is familiar because she is in this book. It is the logbook for the Bratislava Chantry, the one she was stationed in during the Omen War. Sure enough, one of the ancient pages is dogeared, and when she flips to it, she finds a page listing her name—her original name—followed by her signature.
“Great….” she mutters to herself, staring at her handwriting from hundreds of years ago. “This guy diverted my circle. I was brought here on purpose.”
She pulls out the page with her name on it and folds it up, then notices something: something scribbled on the back, in different ink, and different handwriting. She knows it’s from a different time as well, because what’s written is a URL.
She shoves the note in her bag, then takes the folio, as well as every other Tremere book she finds, throws them in the fireplace, and sets them on fire.
(Jim: “How to be a Good Guest, by, The Tremere.”
Kara: “Sequel to How to be a Good Host, by, The Tzmitsce.”)
As she stares at the fire—from a safe distance away—Georgia hears the door to the library open. She tenses. Orlando told her she would be able to search this night in peace, but for a moment she wonders if all his…pets…got that memo. Mentally, she prepares some defensive spells just in case and turns.
A tall, slim figure is standing there, dressed in an formal suit and tie, complete with hat, but the head underneath the hat has no face, the skin there smooth as a billiard ball. Still, Georgia gets the sense he is staring at her.
“Um, hello,” Georgia says amiably. “Have you come to use the library? I’ll…be leaving here soon….” The tall figure doesn’t react. Georgia glances at the fire, checking that all the books are either burning or reduced to ash, then gathers her bag and sidles carefully around him. The blank face turns to follow her as she leaves, “staring” at her as she closes the door.
Georgia steps into an alcove down the hall and pulls out the bloodstained set of directions. While the instructions on it are clear, the start point is not. Most of the steps seem to pertain to outdoor things, however, so she decides to start with the clearest outdoor landmark she can think of: the front door of the castle.
She makes her way there and sets out. The directions quickly lead her off of the manicured garden grounds and into the rolling hillsides of the surrounding ranch. Eventually she arrives at a small cabin, tucked in a dale out of sight of the manor. It’s ramshackle and rundown, with filthy windows and leaves piled against the front door. She peers from it, to the note, to the surrounding moonlit hillsides. There’s no question this is the correct place, though she’s stumped on what to do next.
Dawn is approaching so she only has enough time to make a quick circuit of the cabin, but she finds something in the back that makes her pause: a heavy door like a cellar door, leading under the foundation of the cabin, but much more modern than the rest of the structure; it’s sealed with an electronic lock activated by a digital number-pad. She tries to Object Read to get the code. Though she sees that the last person to open this door was Orlando, it apparently spent ten minutes hitting random keys before doing so.
(Jason: “It’s like…he knew you were coming.”)
She does, however, notice that when Orlando left this place, it took a different route back to the manor than the one she arrived in, so she heads in that direction. The castle soon appears in the distance, baroque towers and palm trees silhouetted against the lightening sky, but something else attracts her attention. A tree, centered in a clearing, partly burned by fire or lightning, swaying lightly in the morning breeze. She peers at it a moment, wondering why it caught her eye, before finally realizing: there is no morning breeze. The tree is moving on its own.
(Me: “Ehrmagerd it’s the Whomping Willow.”)
Intrigued, she moves closer, reaching out a hand to try and Object Read it too, but by the time she reaches a few feet away, another realization has hit.
It’s not a tree, its a ztlotcha fleshbeast, embedded in the ground, with armored planks of wood burnt into its skin. As she stares, some of its drifting “branches” snake toward Georgia and large, fanged orifices suddenly erupt in its “trunk.” The arms grab at her, trying to shove her into its maw.
(Kara: “Welp…when in doubt, burn it out.”)
Georgia launches a massive fireball. The creature shrieks and recoils, but the majority of the fire misses or splashes off the wood harmlessly. An echoing growl emerges from the multiple orifices, and it grabs at Georgia again.
(Kara: “I’ve never fought a tree before!”
Cameron: “I am Groot.”)
Georgia decides that this isn’t worth the effort. She turns and jogs leisurely across the grass, assuming she’s easily in the clear, and chances a glance back. The tree-creature is now uprooting itself from the ground, its spindly appendages digging into the dirt to drag it along after her.
Mentally, she does the Georgia-approximation of, “Fuck THAT,” pops Celerity, and dashes back to the castle, leaving the tree-flesh-beast behind.
Dawn is now imminent. She plunges into the depths of the house, but before she seeks cover she has one more thing to do. She ducks into a bathroom, looking for a hand- or pocket-mirror, something portable. She doesn’t find those, but the room does contain a large wall mirror. She picks up a ceramic statue and shatters the mirror with it, then grabs one of the shards and shoves it in her bag. Only then does she stumble her way to the cellar before falling asleep.
(Jim: “Property damage in so many places….”
Kara: “He’s trying to kill me!”
Jim: “This is what happens when you invite a Tremere.”
Kara: “This is what happens when you invite someone to play The Most Dangerous Game in your house!!”)
PAUL’S DOWNTOWN PENTHOUSE
Paul wakes up the next night in his penthouse, relatively no worse for wear. Marcus is gone, but before he left, he apparently drank the remainder of the keg of blood he himself had delivered a few nights before. Paul sighs, resigning himself once again to animal blood.
Paul touches base with Vincent Van Lowe, the Myrmidon guy. He survived the gargoyle attack at Fort Funston—as well as the shot to the leg courtesy of Himmler, by way of Paul—but despite that, he is not a happy man. Gargoyles and Nazis and millenia-old vampires—and now, according to Paul, dragons—are rapidly exceeding the scope of things Myrmidon is equipped to deal with. Vincent tells Paul they’ll need a couple days to retreat. recover, and reevaluate their plans.
“You may be an immortal undying being,” Van Lowe says before he hangs up, “But my men and I are, by large, not.”
Next Paul calls to report to Bell on the incidents of the previous night, which…goes about as well as you might think, since the last Bell heard from us, we were launching a mission to the Farallones, and that ended up being the least harrowing and complex of our activities.
Still, Bell tries to focus on the positives:
Bell: “So Adrianus van Brugge is alive.”
Bell: “And you left him with Tom Lytton.”
Bell: “So Adrianus van Brugge is dead.”
(Me: “Fuck you, Theo Bell!”)
Bell’s tone darkens as he tries to impart the seriousness of the situation on a jaded and exhausted Paul. In his many years as an Archon, and now a Justicar, he has seen many serious situations, but few as serious as this is becoming. One of the signs, apparently, of the seriousness of all these issues is the behavior of the smallest one: Marcus.
“Let me say this,” Bell grumbles. “I did a little research. The last time a Camarilla Justicar asked to meet with that Methusula, she was next seen in body bags. Multiple body bags, spread across multiple continents. When I asked him to meet with me, he agreed to it without conditions. Now what do you think that says about the times we are sitting in?”
Paul glances at the empty blood keg. “Well, nothing like serious times and common foes to bring people together, eh?”
“Warms the cockles of your heart,” Bell growls.
Paul wraps up his report. Bell accepts it all with a grumbling sigh and tells Paul to get back to the Pyramid as soon as he can, with as many other of the rest of us assholes as he can scrape up.
Bell hangs up. Paul sighs and grabs his bike gear, heading down to the garage to grab another motorcycle (we can’t remember how many he’s gone through at this point, we think its #2 of 3) and head up to the Tower to find me. On the way he calls Gates.
“Paul!” her relieved voice pours through the bluetooth speakers in his helmet. “Thank God! What’s happened? Where are you?”
“It’s a long story, but I’m in the city, on my way up to Sutro Tower.”
She hesitates. “Sutro Tower? You’re going there now?”
Paul pulls onto Market Street and cruises to a stop at the next light. “Yes? Why, is there something wrong with it?” He glances over the skyline, half expecting to see it on fire (which is not impossible, considering I am there).
“No, but…Paul there’s a curfew!”
“What?” Paul glances around. It’s only about 7:30 pm at this point, but the streets do look more deserted than usual, even for a Sunday. “Why?”
“Paul where have you been? The national guard is in town!”
“Why is the national guard in San Francisco!?”
“Because you’ve been blowing half the city up!!! The president has been talking about terrorism and Al Qaida and all sorts of threats. They just arrived this morning, investigating and patrolling the street. The curfew is 8 pm. If they catch you out after that…” She hesitates, nervous breath echoing in Paul’s helmet, “…I don’t know what they’ll do, but there’s been rumors of attack helicopters.”
(Me: “Whaaat? That escalated quickly.”)
The light turns green. Paul hesitates a second, glancing back at his towering apartment building, then revs the engine and roars up the street anyway. He has to find me and van Brugge, and he has just enough time to make it to the Tower before 8. He’ll have to figure out what to do after that later.
He continues to talk with Gates on the way, checking in on company business and logistics. To that end, he asks her to set up a meeting with the engineer in charge of the sunlight-piping technology for the following evening.
“And contact the press,” he says as he plunges into the heart of the city. “We’re going to have a big announcement in the next few days.”
I wake up in the cold, concrete darkness of Dr. vonNatsi’s lab. I had tried to get the hell out of here the morning before, doing anything I could think of to get in contact with Bell so he could send a car for me. Unfortunately all my attempts were met with hilarious failure, as the following audio clip can best summarize.
Thus, with dawn fast approaching, I grabbed van Brugge and stormed back into the building, descending into the lab to crash on a cot in a side office (van Brugge, though, was unceremoniously dumped on one of the worktables). I fell asleep there, in a lab empty of all other living organisms, dreading what the next night would bring.
Because the next night, I wake up ravenous. Ravenous…and sick.
A dim bulb in the room illuminates my hands, angry purple sarcoma lesions blooming across them, and though I have no need to breathe, my lungs are weighed down with wet, pneumatic rot. The same rot that killed Rob, perhaps, brought back into unlife by my inability to fully heal this night. Coughing, I force myself up to a seat on the cot and stare around at the cracked concrete walls.
This is bad. Perhaps the worst it’s ever been. I’ve only been forced to this situation a handful of times in the last twenty years of undead existence, but never before in a place like this, miles from help and with no way to contact it.
If there was even any help to get. It’s clear the Camarilla is falling apart in this city, and the Masquerade along with it. Normally I wouldn’t care, but it’s also eroded its safety net infrastructure, like the Prince’s douche-delivery service I sometimes called for a last-minute emergency blood drop-off. On top of all that, of course, never have I been stuck powerless in the middle of an erupting supernatural war, with werewolves and dragons breathing down my neck, and millenia-old vampires hunting me across the multiverse.
I groan and scrub my face. And, of course, there is the other millenia-old vampire to worry about, the one who isn’t going to be pleased with my job at pet-sitting. I haul to my feet and stumble into the lab, groping for a lightswitch. Long banks of fluorescents flicker to light overhead.
Revealing Marcus, sitting on a table in front of me.
I freeze, dread erasing my pains and pinning me where I stand. “…Hey, Boss,” I mumble.
“Hello, Tom.” He stares at me calmly, expression as unreadable as it’s ever been. He looks better than he has in nights, but he doesn’t get up from the table. I realize suddenly that he’s sitting where I left van Brugge the night before, and van Brugge is missing.
(Jason: “…How much blood do you have?”
Me: “Um, two points….?”
Jason: *long, evil grin* “Self control test!”)
The beast in me writhes, momentarily overwhelmed by the presence of such a rich, powerful blood source, but my self control—as well as its own sense of self-preservation—beat it back into submission. Still, I waver, leaning against the doorframe, gripping the wood so hard it splinters.
Marcus continues to watch me calmly. “I was wondering if you might tell me what happened on those islands.”
I take a long, shuddering breath, then give him the rundown: the ride to Alcatraz, gargoyles, the portal to the Farallones, more gargoyles, werewolves, secret underground lairs, more werewolves, Jeremiah Flagg, Perpenna, the escape through the internet, more Perpenna, culminating with a big fucking dragon in the park.
He takes this all in silently. “Where is your werewolf?”
I shrug. “She was here before dawn, but she left.” I hesitate. “…I gave her some new threads, though, I didn’t think van Brugge would mind.”
Marcus glances to the bare spot where van Brugge was lying. “So…you took Adrianus van Brugge—Fireman of the Tremere—stripped him naked, and gave his clothes to a werewolf. Is that what happened?”
I gulp and nod. “That’s…about the long and the short of it, Boss.”
He turns back to me. “Tom…I think you’re doing alright.”
Some of the weight eases off me. “Really?”
“Well, he’ll probably want to rip your soul out, but enmity is the spice of life.” A brief smirk tugs the corner of his mouth. “Besides, it’s not like Adrianus hasn’t deserved that for awhile.”
I stare at the table. “Yeah, where is he?”
“I sent him…somewhere else. For safekeeping.” He glances around the cluttered lab. “This is an interesting choice in sleeping quarters. Not sure I would have picked it….”
I follow his gaze around the room. “Yeah, I don’t know where Dr. vonNatsi is, but I’m sure wherever it is, kitchen utensils are involved.”
“Hmm.” Marcus shrugs. “Well, I don’t mess with mages when I have the option to not.”
“Yeah, I’m learning that too,” I grumble, reflexively rubbing my regrown arm.
Marcus watches me another long, silent moment, face slowly darkening. “So. There is another question that comes to mind.” My dread starts to creep back to me, crawling out from the shadows of the room, as Marcus once again pins me with his gaze. “…Where’s Aquilifer?”
(Me: *avoids Jason’s gaze, holds up my plushie golden eagle* “She’s right here! See!”)
“Tom….” Marcus says sternly. “Where is Aquilifer?”
I stare at the floor. “She…was with us on the island. She went up to patrol outside, but then we went underground and…things happened quickly….” I wrench my eyes up to him. “That’s why I came up here, I was hoping Dr. vonNatsi could pull some colander-shit and get me back to the islands so I could find her.”
“So you don’t know where Aquilifer is,” he says flatly. I drop my gaze again, remaining silent. The shadows swell behind him as he continues, voice low. “You left my eagle on an island filled with werewolves and Tremere gargoyles. Is that correct?”
Any other night I’d probably make some snarky comment about getting a principal-style lecture from a nine-year-old, but tonight is not that night.
Tonight I am fairly certain that I am about to die.
“That’s…about the long and the short of it, Boss,” I say softly.
He stares at me, dark eyes growing darker. “Would it interest you to know what happened to the last person who laid a hand on Aquilifer? Before the incident with Max, I mean.” He leans forward. “I don’t think it would surprise you to learn that I killed him. But it might surprise you to learn that I spent the entirety of your American Civil War doing it. I caught him in the fall of 1860 and he died in the spring of ’66.”
I blink, brain trying to comprehend the full implications of that and refusing too. “Was…he a vampire?”
Marcus is silent a moment. “For a time,” he says softly.
The silence of the lab rings heavily around us before he continues. “I don’t know if you can understand what it is I generally do. I’m not certain I care. I’m…not from your time, and I’m not from your country. But this much I would have thought you did understand.”
“I did,” I protest weakly, “That’s why I was trying to keep her with me—“
“And yet here we are. And where is she.”
I stare at him in silence, then look away.
“What do you imagine I should do at this point, Tom?”
“Well I know what I would do if I lost a member of my own family—” I stop suddenly, a voice twisting up from my own inner darkness to mock me in a voice more venomous than Marcus’s.
Yes, it taunts, But you have lost a member of your family…And whose fault, ultimately, was that as well?
“And what is that? It’s a pertinent question at this stage.” Marcus says.
Images of Isabella flash though my head, summoned by me or my own personal demons, I don’t know. “Find them” I mutter. “Find those who took them from me.”
“Do you have the first conception of what it is to do that?” Marcus snaps. “To find people responsible for things and to do unto them? How much revenge have you taken in your day, Tom?”
My fist clenches tightly, close to drawing blood. “None yet.”
The room suddenly darkens. I’m reminded of when Perpenna came to my apartment some nights ago, how the bare walls and weak lights were swallowed up by his growing wrath. I stare into the shadows, finding them easier to face than Marcus. “Do you know what it is,” Marcus says, “to look at a man you have hunted for a time and kill him—by inches—in front of your own eyes and feel exaltation as you do it? To be unable to gratify your own desire sufficiently with enough blood and enough pain because any amount is insufficient? Have you given any thought to that, given your own…Assamite-related problems?”
I cringe, and the voice inside me chuckles meanly. “Little bit.”
The darkness pulses again as he continues. “I am not some cloud that descends upon a city without reason and simply destroys. When I burn things to the ground I wish it to be known as to why. As you suggesting I should do that? I’ve burned cities in my day. You’re a Brujah, you’re familiar with a vampire’s frenzy. Is that what I should do? Show you the frenzy of an ancient? For all of the microseconds you would survive to witness it? You and the rest of this city, army or no army? What precisely do you think I am?”
I look at the darkness a moment before lifting my eyes back to his. “I think that you are more than any of us give you credit for.”
He scoffs. “I didn’t come here for you to blow smoke up my ass. And I don’t need your validation for my credentials as a killer.” He stares for another long moment, then leans back. The shadows recede slightly in kind. “So. What would you have me do with you here, and Aquilifer not?”
The silence stretches for a long moment before I respond. “I can find her,” I say softly.
“You can find her? How?”
“I won’t pretend that hasn’t gotten you places, but somehow I doubt that’s enough. And if you do find her, but in pieces, what then?”
“…Launch an investigation?”
He scoffs again. “Because this is Congress? And that is what we do?”
I don’t respond. The moment stretches long.
Jim: “I suggest you quit dicking around so we can both find your damn bird!”
Me: “Yeah, I’m not saying that. That’s more something you would say.”
Jason: “Which is why Jim is on his 4th character.”)
Marcus’s eyes narrow and the shadows swell again. “I’ll ask you one last time. In all senses of the question, and bear in mind that you are answering something that is neither a child nor a vampire proper. Where…is…Aquilifer?”
(Jim: “You knew this was coming.”
Yeah I know, I’ve known it for weeks, as Jason and the rest of the group have taken every opportunity to mock me for the missing bird—knowing that it distresses ornithologist-hearted me as much as survival-minded Tom—but…I didn’t think it would come down to this, and so soon….)
“I don’t know,” I say, voice barely a whisper, but my words echo in the silence.
Marcus nods slowly to himself “Well then.…“ He hops off the table. He is now signifigantly shorter than me, but still somehow is towering over me with his gaze. “Let me enlighten you.…” He stares at me as he snaps his fingers, plunging the room instantly into pure blackness. Moments later, the light comes back….
…And Aquilifer is sitting on the table behind him.
(Me: “YOU GODDAMN SON OF A BITCH!!!” *beats Jason over the head with the Aquilifer-plushie*)
I stare in shock at the eagle, roused and regal, not sure if I believe what I’m seeing, but then I see the very, very slight hint of a trolling smile on Marcus’s face.
“You didn’t think that I’d have no precautions in place for a bird like her?” he says smugly. “She’s been my ghoul for eight centuries, I can call her to my side instantly. It doesn’t always work and it does require certain circumstances, but it has come in handy on occasion.” He glances up at her proudly, then back to me, still grinning. “You will forgive an…old man his bit of fun.”
“Yeah, ha, haa….” I laugh brittlely. “That’s, ah, a good one, Boss….”
His smile suddenly drops. “Yes, well, you did leave her on the island….” The shadows flicker. I tense again, but then he relaxes. “…But then, I did leave her in your care.” He looks at her again, watching her preen her flight feathers in slow, rasping deliberateness. “Aquilifer has been through a lot recently and I would hope you’d be more mindful, but then perhaps you were busy.”
I shrug and rub my arm. “Yes, well, when Perpenna shows up, all logic kinda flies out the window….”
“I’ve noticed. But, at the same time…what is the term you people use?” He turns back to me, face as stony as the walls. “No harm, no…fowl?”
I blink at him, not sure if I’m supposed to laugh, finally deciding to play it safe and not.
He sighs, perhaps disappointed that his joke went over my head. “In any event, Tom, to whatever extent you had a hand in it, thank you for keeping an eye on her. It has been an…interesting couple of days….” He rubs his temples. “And speaking of, that werewolf of yours…I appreciate Tom that you’re sort of an awkward position, but I don’t think you appreciate how awkward of a position you’ve put her in.
“I don’t think she does either,” I grumble.
“I’m certain she doesn’t.” His voice becomes serious. “I don’t care who you go running around with, but werewolves are a clannish sort, and sooner or later they’re going to be asking unpleasant questions about how it is she was the only one to survive an event that killed all her fellows and happens to be involved with a vampire who works for the Devourer of Innocence.” Marcus makes a show of glancing at the elevator doors. “If she were to walk into the room right now, what do you think would happen?”
I glower. “Nothing good for her, I’m sure.”
“No, not particularly. I’ve killed far nastier wolves than her. But at the same time I’ve lived long enough to know that you never underestimate a werewolf, ever.” He folds his arms. “So…what am I to do with this situation here? Because she is your client, is she not? And in taking her on as a client, that makes her my client, in a strange…very perverse way.” He shakes his head, then continues. “What do you intend to do with her? You went out and got her from a hellish place, and thats worthy of…consideration, but there’s more where that came from and you know it. If Perpenna wants your werewolf friend, well….you know what happens to people he tends to want.”
I frown and cock my head, something suddenly occurring to me. “Actually, I don’t think he even wanted her. I think the Tremere wanted her, to trade to a…what are those fuckers called…a Spiral Dancer.”
Marcus lifts his eyebrows. “A spiral dancer?” He chuckles. “Oh, well…what has Himmler been getting himself in to…do you know what a Spiral Dancer is?”
I shrug. “Some…fucked up werewolf?”
Marcus rolls his eyes and launches into his “Teacher Voice”—which, as always, is strange coming from a nine year old. “If we take the werewolves at their word that they are Gaia’s defenders or some such nonsense, then the Spiral Dancers are the, ah…defectors. The ones who switched sides. To our side, to put too fine a point on it. For all that, I’ve never found that they were terribly commodious to us. But then I don’t do business with a lot of werewolves.” He shakes his head then continues, voice serious. “Spiral Dancers are mad, mad as a Malkavian and far more dangerous, and they hate their…less mad kin with a fervor that approaches the hate that their kin feel for them. If there’s a Spiral Dancer chasing your client, you’re going to have a hell of a time keeping it off of her.”
I grimace, gripping my sword and my whip tightly. “Well…I got a lot more silver to my name now.”
(Chris: “Yeah, 30 pieces.”
Me: “HAAAA. :|”)
Touching the sword, though, reminds me: “Oh, hey, how’d it go with the dragon? You’re here so I assume…marginally well….”
Marcus sighs, weariness settling noticeably over him. “I’m here and the dragon is…there. And to be perfectly honest with you, Tom, I’m not entirely sure how that came about.”
He turns to the eagle, still perched stoically behind him. “Aquilifer and I have business that we may need to attend to in the next few nights. She has been through a great deal, and if I’m being perfectly honest, so have I. There are a few things I need to ensure are in order before I return to…” he waves a hand vaguely. “…all this. Are you going to be able to survive for the next few nights? With…minimum necessary disruption?”
I shrug. “I’ve survived so far….”
He nods, then sighs. “Well. All this aside, and despite the several glaring oversights, I…appreciate you not getting Aquilifer killed.”
I blink. Marcus is someone who reveals his emotions only slightly less often than he provides praise, so coming from him this statement is akin to him throwing me a parade. I accept it with the seriousness in which he delivers it, nodding once, then turn to leave the lab. My last view as the elevator doors close is him leaning against the table, Aquilifer looming over him in the darkness.
As soon as I get outside, though, whatever warm fuzzy feels I gathered evaporated. I am still on the fucking mountain, still with no cell phone, and even hungrier than I was the night before. I am just starting to wonder what the hell I am going to do about this when I hear a rumbling hum come up the drive leading to the facility. Lights crest the hill and Paul appears from the gloom, on his BMW motorcycle. The moment I see him my beast surges, clamoring for a kill, but I’m able to hold it down.
“Hey Paul,” I mutter as he pulls up, leaning against the doorframe of the building.
“Hey….” He says suspiciously, climbing off the bike. “Where’s van Brugge?”
“I don’t know, Boss stashed him somewhere.”
Paul frowns. “Well, Bell’s expecting him.” He looks me over. “Can you handle getting back to the Pyramid?”
I shrug. Maybe if I ride fast and focus on driving, instead of the crowds of people in the city around me…. “Can I borrow your bike?”
He frowns. “You can ride on my bike with me.”
I glare at him. “I don’t ride bitch.”
Stares at me flatly. “Yes. You do.”
We stare at each other a few moments before I surrender, throwing up my hands. “Fine, whatever, just get me out of here before I kill someone.”
Anstis wakes up to the comforting movement of the waves, though it is underscored by the alien rumble of diesel engines. He lays there a moment, considering the request Captain Morgan laid out for him the night before. He can easily find out information on Accio’s location with his stone-farcasting ritual, but then Morgan would want to know how he got that information. He comes up with a plan to use the ritual, and then pull some Aquaman shit by speaking with the local wildlife to cover his tracks. He gets up and casts the ritual, and through the usual vague-rencies figures out that Accio is roughly 80 miles away, north by north-west. He pockets the stone, then heads out to do step 2.
He comes out on deck to find the ship well at sail, moving at a faster rate than he ever thought possible for a ship. Crewmen—and a few women—are scattered about, busy in their tasks, but all eye Anstis warily. Anstis ignores them, striding up to the railing. He takes a moment to savor the feel of wind and spray on this face….
…Then turns into a motherfucking giant octopus.
The crew all stop whatever they’re doing and step back. Anstis continues to ignore them, hoisting himself over the side and carefully lowering down into the water, keeping a firm, razor-suckered grip on the hull of the ship so he doesn’t get dragged off into the wake. He summons a pod of dolphins, explains to them that he’s looking for an underwater ship, then sends them off to try and find it.
Well, except for the last dolphin, which he grabs and eats.
Anstis gloms his way back up onto the deck to wait. He remains in octopus form, sprawled across a good chunk of the bow. The nearby crew go back to work, but they all give him a wide berth.
After some time, though, one sailor cautiously approaches Anstis. He stops a few feet away and clears his throat. “Sir?”
Anstis slurps his way around, pivoting one softball-sized eye to face the man.
The man stares and takes another step back. “Sir, there’s, ah…a call for you…in your cabin….”
Anstis stares for another long moment, savoring the young sailor’s expression, then shifts back down into human. “Very well,” he growls, straightening his hat. He descends back into the ship and into his cabin. He picks up his cellphone, but there is no message there, or anything indicating a call. Perplexed, he stares around the cabin, finally noticing a clunky device mounted on the wall with a blinking light and odd grid of raised buttons. He lifts up the receiver, peers at it, then holds it cautiously up to his ear. “Speak,” he growls.
“You think you’re so clever, don’t you?” a smooth male voice says. It’s clear, much clearer than Anstis would expect from a technological device.
In fact, he realizes slowly, the voice isn’t coming from the phone…it’s coming from behind him.
Anstis turns. A man is standing in his cabin, one he is certain wasn’t there when he came in, with mediterranean features and a crisp, dark suit, holding a polished ebony cane. Anstis glares at him and sets the phone back in its cradle.
The man sneers and paces the cabin. “You think it’s as easy as wandering in with a warship and taking me apart? Do you have any conception of what you’re dealing with…barnacle?”
Antis watches him carefully but remains in the center of the room. “And you are?”
The man looks Anstis up and down as he passes. “I am the Collector. And you are a pestilent boil that has decided to make itself known to me. You and this fetid pesthouse of a ship. And the drunken fool that commands it.” He glares around at the rust-speckled walls. “What is Morgan paying you, I wonder? Gold? Rum? Slaves? You dealt in them all, no pirate didn’t. Yes, I know who you are, Thomas Anstis. I’ve read the stories. You work for my…uncle, don’t you?
“And you must want to die, for you to board this ship”
The man–who is clearly Accio–laughs. “You haven’t the first conception of who you’re dealing with, Captain. I could kill you in an instant and be back to my ship in time to catch dinner. But instead…I’ve got a proposition.” He smiles and tilts the handle of the cane toward Anstis. “You want gold? I have some. You want other riches? I have those too. Spices, tobacco, rum, whatever it is that you trade in. I’ve amassed a collection. You want…arcane lore and secrets? I deal in those. You want ships? I have plenty to spare.” He shakes his head and chuckles. “You’re fighting on the wrong side of this one, Captain. Your patron has one ship, dilapidated and scrounged off the ocean floor. I have a fleet. You think you can take me? Your patron has been trying for centuries. He’s failed every time.” He scoffs. “Henry Morgan. His day was hundreds of years ago.”
Anstis watches him closely. “And who is your patron?”
Accio’s face darkens, and the shadows of the room flicker in kind. “My patron is someone you had best not speak of,” he says, voice low.
“His name has been spoken a great much in these past nights.”
“Yes. It has. Perhaps we should speak of it again. Perhaps he will grace us with his presence, and then….” He smiles sickly, “Then I will have a show, and you will have something else.”
“Last time I met him I nearly tore him apart.”
Accio throws back his head and laughs. “I don’t believe a word. No one can kill him. You’d know that if you’d seen him for half a moment. What, you think the small one will protect you?”
Anstis shrugs. “Anyone can be killed.”
“Shall we put that into practice, then?” Accio smiles and spreads his hands. “Come now, Captain, I am here to offer you a bargain. You’re a pirate, you’ve no attachment to this ship, or this crew, or that fool who commands it. I could give you a ship, or ten. A whole flotilla to ride the waves and deal whatever it is you wish. I don’t care what uses you put it to.”
Anstis glares at Accio calculatingly. “Your offer has the air of desperation.”
He chuckles. “Oh you think I’m desperate? Maybe I am. How desperate are you? Morgan is the child of a child. I am not. And you wont get within a hundred miles of my fleet, you have to know that. Not in this bucket of rust, nor any ship of the line you should care to dredge off the ocean floor.”
Ansis nods one, still glaring. “Tell me, what is your quarrel with Morgan?”
Accio waves a hand vaguely. “He worked for my patron’s wayward child. My patron doesn’t like that. Morgan and I have had our disagreements because Marcus and I have had ours. He fancies that he left me alive as some form of Roman honor. He left me alive because he didn’t have a choice. Mistake or otherwise, I am here and he is not. And while he cowers in that cesspool of a city, I am on the sea, with a fleet, and weapons, and all the other things I need to make my own will known. Do you wish to cross that will?”
Accio stares at Anstis, shadows swelling and flickering behind him. Anstis glares back and doesn’t answer. After a few moments, Accio chuckles again. He twirls his cane and leans back against the desk. “I didn’t think so. Name your price then, Captain. I’ve negotiated with worse than you.”
(Jason: “What’s that hierarchy of sins thing about betraying captains and such?”
Jim: “It doesn’t look favorably upon it.”)
And, honestly, neither does Anstis. His face is expressionless, but inside emotions are roiling. His own crew betrayed him, afterall, staking him and locking him in a crate, shoved overboard and into the depths of the sea. Since he awoke in our time he has meandered about the city set on his own interests first, but the sting of betrayal has echoed through the centuries like a lash. It may be something that he toyed with before, in his checkered long-ago past, but these nights…he wants no part in it.
Anstis stares at Accio in silence as he ponders this, then, without another word, whips out his claws and lunges at him with a guttural scream.
Georgia wakes up in the cellar of the castle, in an area that has been partially cleared of wine casks and storage crates to create a series of heavy-walled, secured cells. She collapsed into one of these unlocked cells the morning before, and wakes to find herself blessedly alone and apparently unmolested.
But she wasn’t alone the entire day, it seems. She finds a small bundle the size of a smartphone next to her, wrapped in a piece of paper with a note scribbled on it. She peers at the note through the gloom.
You weren’t thinking of cheating, were you?
She frowns, touching the paper carefully. The words are written in blood.
(Me: “Well, granted, apparently all the pens here are filled with blood, so that’s not as surprising as it could be.”)
She picks up the smartphone-sized bundle, unwraps it…and finds a smartphone. Her smartphone, as a matter of fact, charged and everything. She pockets it and investigates the rest of the cells. Most of them are simple stone compartments with bars, but at the end of the row she finds a room walled off from the rest of the space and sealed with a solid oak door. She smiles to herself. If there’s anywhere the werewolf cub is being held, it’s here. Pleased, she pulls out her mirror fragment, casts [some sort of ritual she picked up from Himmler that lets her walk through walls and shit], then steps forward to walk through the door of the cell.
And bounces off of it.
She frowns and tries to walk through one of the stone walls instead. Nothing. She then tries the same ritual on one of the other, smaller cells and has no problem walking through that, so she knows its not her. Something about this cell is actively repelling her. Almost as if it had been warded….
She glares at the note again, now understanding its meaning. Irritated, she shoves the note in her mouth and tries to suck the blood off it. There’s not enough to drink, but she does pick up some new information: this blood is from the same guy who provided the flesh for the fleshmap. She chews the paper, thinking, when suddenly her new phone rings.
It’s Paul, checking on her whereabouts. She tells him all about the Shadowlands and gives a brief summary of the last two nights—Tzimitsce and fleshbeasts and the games they apparently play—but says she can’t leave yet because she needs to find this werewolf cub.
Paul is…understandably perplexed by all of this unexpected information. However, he vows to do whatever he can to send her help, or rescue her himself.
Paul hangs up his phone. “Tom…we were trapped in the internet last night, and then we talked a dragon out of killing us, yeah?”
I look up from my spot sulking against the bike. “Well, you did, but yeah…?”
Paul stares vacantly into the darkness a moment. “Our night was not the weirdest night.”
(Jason: “What are you going to do now?”
Chris: “I’m going to call…a therapist?”)
I stare at him. After a few moments, he shakes himself out of his shock and turns to me. “That was Georgia on the phone. She and Anstis apparently went through Hell, or something, and now she’s at Hearst Castle being chased by Tzmitscian hell-beasts and has to rescue a werewolf puppy.”
“Ah….” I say flatly, not sure how to take that either.
“Do…you think you can call Sophia and ask if she wants to help us fight Tzmitscian hellbeasts and rescue a werewolf puppy?”
I glare at him and spread my arms. “Still no phone, Paul!”
Once again he stares at me like I’ve started speaking tongues.
I glare back. “Look, Paul, I’m beat to shit, I’m starving, I have my AIDS again, so I need to get my shit together before we go barreling off on any new missions!”
(Jason: “Welcome to Vampire, ‘I have all this shit to do but, goddammit, I must have blood!”)
Paul sighs, mutters about always being the one to organize rescue missions, and calls Sophia himself. After some brief pleasantries, he drops everything on her about the hellbeasts and the cub and asks if she would be willing to come along and help us out.
(Kara: *laughing* “So, you take your vampire friends to rescue a werewolf, and then you take your werewolf friends to rescue a vampire!”)
Sophia, while willing to pay back her debt to us, seems terrified by the idea of Hearst Castle. She doesn’t know what’s there, but knows of it as another one of those places where, quote, “We’re not supposed to go.”
“What is it with all these vaguely forbidden places we’re not supposed to go?” Paul mutters.
“Look, Paul,” she says anxiously, “I know you think I’m some sort of…force of nature, or something, but I’m not a fighter. I was just supposed to be the tech! They brought me in to hack your servers!”
“Well, I was just playing around with an instant messaging program and wound up somehow running a fifty-billion dollar company,” Paul says chastisingly.
Still, though, Paul concedes, saying he’ll try some other sources first, or at least try and gather more information.
Sophia agrees, relieved, then hesitates. “If that castle is run by some giant old death-vampire, shouldn’t you call…you know…your giant death-vampire?”
Paul frowns. “You make a good point,” he says, then finishes the conversation and hangs up.
He turns to me, still leaning against the bike. “Tom! Do you know anything about Hearst Castle?”
“Yeah, Boss knows a guy there,” I shrug.
Paul hesitates. “…Oh?”
“Yeah, some sort of old-world Tzmitsce. We were talking about getting his help with.…” I glance at the spots on my hands, “…Something.”
Paul stares into the darkness again, this time thoughtfully. He has a lot of threads to work on at the moment, and is trying to figure out the best way to untangle them. “Tom, do you know anything about this curfew?”
“What? No, we’re not in fucking middle school.”
“No I mean the national guard is in town. No one is allowed in or out after 8pm.”
“Psssssssssh,” I snort disdainfully, “We’ll see how well that works out. Put San Franciscans under a military state? I’m sure that’s a great idea.”
Paul glares at me and lifts his phone. “I’m going to check in with Bell.”
“Great, ask him if we can get a hall-pass,” I grumble.
Paul calls Bell, who confirms the curfew and says while it’s not his doing, he is letting it happen because the Masquerade is already stretched to the limit. He says he can get a car out to us, though, a county sheriff’s deputy, to bring us back to the pyramid.
“And try not to get into too many battles on the way,” Bell snaps before hanging up the phone.
Anstis lunges at Accio, swiping his claws upwards along the chest, but Accio steps out of the way at the last second. The claws swipe mostly through empty air, but a few catch the edges of Accio’s suit, tearing huge rents across the lapel. Accio fingers the tears briefly, then snarls at Anstis, whipping a rapier-thin sword out from the handle of his cane in a smooth arc. The strike slices clean across Anstis’s throat, instantly severing his trachea and both arteries, missing his spine by millimeters.
(Jim: “Yeah, I’m rolling non-stop 1’s tonight!”
Kara: “Oh god, don’t kill Jim again!”
Jason: “I will do as I like!!!”)
Anstis’s yell—intended to attract attention—cuts out in a wet gurgle. He stumbles back, neck already healing from the damage, but shadow tendrils erupt from the corners of the room and restrain him. He struggles, slashing at them with his claws, and slices his way out from two of them before the lights in the room go out.
(Me: “Because of course they fucking do.”)
The room sinks into cold, crushing darkness, adding to the crushing darkness already wrapped around him. Anstis fights his way out of the last of the tentacles and lurches toward where he hopes the door is—
—And crashes right into a wall.
(Jim: “My dice today! I am going to SET THEM ON FIRE!”)
Anstis collapses to the floor, stunned, but gradually hears noise drifting through the stifling darkness. Sounds like gunshots, muffled so much they sound like they’re coming from miles away. Nothing attacks or grabs him, though, so he gropes along the wall until he finds the door. It’s open, cold darkness pouring out like ice water, and he fights his way through till he reaches light and clear air once again. The darkness behind him swells, reaching toward him, then suddenly settles, dissipating into nothingness. Anstis stares a moment, still knitting his flesh together, then cautiously sticks his head around the door.
Morgan is in the middle of the cabin, brandishing a pistol in one hand and a cutlass in the other. His dark woolen coat is slashed, but he himself seems otherwise unhurt. Two crewmen stand behind him but three men lay at his feet, covered in long, disemboweling wounds. All three are human, and dead. Of Accio, there is no sign.
Morgan sees Anstis looming in the doorway, claws extended. “What was this?” Morgan growls.
“Accio. He appeared behind me.”
“Accio was here?” Morgan stares down at the bodies, face hardening. “Alert the crew,” he barks to the sailors, striding from the cabin, heading toward the bridge. Anstis follows. Moments later, a low klaxon echoes through the ship.
“If Accio is here, then he knows our location and may send his submarine, if not others,” Morgan grumbles as they walk. “Do you have any sense of his location?”
Anstis hesitates briefly as he passes through a bulkhead. He hasn’t had time to “check in” with his dolphin sources, thus continuing his cover, but right now time is of the essence. “Roughly 80 miles north-northwest.”
“Then we should have him on the radar soon. If we do not have him in the radar room.” They enter the bridge. Every crewman present is at full alert, focused on screens and panels, talking quietly over headset radios. Morgan scans the room briefly then turns to Anstis. “How did Accio get here?”
Anstis shrugs. “He appeared…from the shadows.”
Morgan curses, whirling to the windows. “That cannot be done from a distance. I have such ability myself, but I can barely go from one end of the ship to the other, let alone 80 miles!”
“I do not know. I dislike not knowing the things my enemy can do.” Morgan glares out at the dark sea, the bridge continuing to bustle steadily around him. Anstis hesitates, glancing at the crew, then quietly steps out of the bridge to cast the stone-ritual on Accio again.
Accio is in Phaeton’s Chariot.
Anstis frowns, pondering this as he reenters the bridge, wondering whether it would mean something to Morgan, but before he can speak, one of the sailors looks up from his screen. “Captain,” he says seriously, “We have something approaching.”
Morgan nods once. “All hands to battle-stations,” he rumbles. The lights on the bridge dim, shifting to a deeper red, and the klaxon changes its tone. The energy of the crew increases, inside the bridge and out, and the turrets toward the bow grind into movement. “If he wishes to charge this ship, I will let him.”
Anstis stares in admiration at the activity around him. “He had some…unkind things to say about your vessel.”
“Hmm. Well, we’ll see how unkindly he speaks when my guns,” he gestures to the long barrels rotating toward the port side, “have things to say to him.” Morgan stares into the darkness and smiles.
(Me: “I feel like this is Anstis’s heavy-metal-album-cover moment: Two vampire pirates, standing on the bridge of a WW2-era battle cruiser, lit by red lights and the glow of radar screens, brandishing swords and guns and issuing orders as an armada of boats and ships descend on them out of the night.”)
END OF NIGHT