9/9/2014

Jason: “What are you doing with the gun?”
Me: “Uh, carrying her on my shoulder.”
Jason: “…I don’t think you quite understand how big Vera actually is.”
Me: “I don’t think you quite understand how big I am!”
Jason: “It’s taller than you are and a hundred pounds if it’s an ounce! And that’s without ammunition!”
Me: “Oh yeah, ammunition…. Can we assume I grabbed my boxes of ammunition as well?”
Jason: “Well, what did you wrap those in? The cloth isn’t big enough to wrap a 50cal-BMG, two shotguns, and four boxes of bullets!”
Me: “Well they’re just plain ammunition boxes, so I probably just carried those.”
Jason: “With what?”
Me: “My hands!”
Jason: “You carry four ammunition boxes, two shotguns, and a 50-caliber machine gun with your hands?”
Me: “Potence!”
Jason: “No, I’m sorry, physically how do you do that?!”
Jim: “How many arms do you have? No, that’s a serious question, the amount tends to vary in this game.”

#

HEARST CASTLE

Georgia arrives back at the castle without encountering any other monstrositites, flesh-moose or otherwise, but as she heads to the second floor to find the room circled on the map, she sees a new monstrosity standing at the top of the stairs.

Orlando. Dressed in an elegant red dressing gown and looking down on her with a calm but intent expression.

“Ah, good evening!” Georgia curtsies. “I’m not late for dinner, am I?”

“No, no,” it says, descending slowly. “The ghouls are flexible in such matters. How is your evening’s search?”

“Oh, it’s been quite fun so far,” she says with a pleasant smile.

“Ah, so good to hear.” Orlando returns the smile. It reaches the bottom stair, its long form towering over her.

Georgia remains unfazed. “How is your evening so far?”

“Remarkably well, though I am a bit dismayed that one of my creations proved…less than adequate for the task I had set to it.” It tsks and shakes its head. “Remarkable creature. I based it on a badger, you know, though you couldn’t tell from looking at it.”

“Really?” Georgia says with genuine interest.

“Mm, quite. Unfortunately its combative capabilities were less effective than its discretion.”

Georgia nods sagely. “Oh, well that will happen sometimes with scaling things. You don’t get the results you expect.”

“Yes. Believe me, I am well aware of that. But, fortunately, I look forward to many tests to come.”

The two stand there a moment, smiling pleasantly at each other, as the tension around them slowly ratchets up to DEFCON levels.

“If I might ask a pertinent question?” Orlando says suddenly, still smiling. “Is there a particular reason a pair of Kindred of Camarilla vintage are approaching my domicile at this very hour?”

Georgia considers this a moment, then shrugs. “Probably.”

Orlando’s smile falters briefly. “I believe one of the denizens of this vehicle is known to you. An entrepreneur by the name of Stewart.”

Now Georgia’s smile wavers. “Ah yes, we are…acquainted.”

“I have seen this man before, and spoken to others in regards to him.”

“In…what regard?”

Orlando makes a show of examining a painting on a wall, a square of stretched tattooed skin in a frame of bone. “There were some who sought my council when it came time to vent their bestial frustrations.”

Georgia blinks. “Oh, for the Monomancy?”

“Yes, the Monomancy….” Orlando sighs, stroking the frame with a smile.

“That turned out quite well for Stewart.”

“By some accounts.”

“Well…he survived it, when others did not.”

“With aid, I believe.” It looks at her pointedly. “There are some who would say that requesting aid in the middle of a one-man competition is unsporting.”

It continues to stare at her. Finally she relents and sighs. “I did call Stewart earlier this evening.”

“And what did you instruct him do to?”

“I asked him if he knew any good locksmiths.”

It blinks at her candor, eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Locksmiths? What do you need with a locksmith?”

“Well…got a lock I can’t open.”

Orlando eyes her carefully. “A lock…in the dungeons?”

Georgia cocks her head. “I can’t recall where it is.”

“Well, I should hope it is not. A locksmith would do you very little use against such a device.”

She sighs. “I had actually figured that.…”

“I imagined you must have. The Tremere do not employ people who are that foolish.”

She bristles slightly but recovers. “No. I also imagine that Stewart is not bringing a locksmith, as I don’t think he knows any.”

“Stewart is bringing with him a man who can preport to many things and a locksmith may be among them. Dr. Corwin Everton.”

Georgia blinks. “Really?” she says brightly. “How is he doing?”

Orlando cocks a hairless eyebrow. “I do not know his present status, though I do know what it will be when he arrives.”

“And what is that?”

It smiles. “Poor.”

“Ah. I see. Do I understand correctly that you do not wish Stewart and Everton to join me at the castle?”

“Oh, Stewart may prove an interesting amusement, but the good doctor is…an annoyance.”

(Me: “He probably gets mad about all the art and stuff at the castle being removed from its historical context!”)

“Did you want me to call them and ask them to turn back?”

“That is your decision. Afterall, this is a large castle, I have accommodations for many.”

They stare at each other for another long moment, then the tension is broken by a loud chime, like a grandfather clock crossed with someone screaming.

Georgia glances around. “Oh is that the time?”

“It is.” Orlando bows slightly and gestures toward the dining room. “Dinner is served.”

#

The car drops off Paul and Dr. Everton at the Hearst Castle visitor center, right off Highway 1. They stare up the long, long road leading up the mountain, to the distant, glowing grounds perched at the top of the ridge like a rare jewel. As they look, Paul’s phone buzzes with a text from Georgia.

Orlando knows you’re coming and isn’t happy about it.

(Me: “Pick up a nice hostess gift on the way.”)

“Oh dear….” Everton says after Paul shows him the text. “I was hoping we could approach by stealth, but I imagine the Voivode will have a better lay of the land.” He gazes at the countryside around them. “But there is still a possibility. If he adheres to the old customs, he will not turn us away if we come bearing a gift.”

(Me: “Oh yay! I was right!”)

“If we bring him a gift,” Everton continues, “he will be forced by his own code to grant us ‘bread and salt.’ It’s a symbol, from the old country. It means we have three days’ and nights’ hospitality.”

Paul nods skeptically. “Well, that’s better than being immediately dismembered.  What would he consider a gift?”

“Well that’s the tricky part, I have no idea. Something valuable would be most effective, I would imagine. More than likely, he would rather we arrive empty-handed so he would have an excuse to kill us, but if we have a gift that none could gain-say, he’ll have little choice.” Everton twists his cane against the ground and cants a glance at Paul. “A Voivode who is known for breaking the bounds of hospitality is a Voivode who has very little time left to live.“

“Well, where do we get something?”

Everton turns to the darkened gift shop. “I don’t think the usual tzotskies would be of much assistance. Do you have anything that might be of use?”

“Perhaps if we could find an antique shop….” Paul suggests.

(Me: “I’m looking for a gift for my aunt.”)

The two stare around, but the only thing visible besides the tourist complex is miles of empty rangeland. “If you don’t have any gifts to offer, do you have any allies who might?” Everton asks. “What of the Brujah? He seems one to collect…unique ways of dispatching one’s enemies.”

Paul considers this, shrugs, then pulls out his phone and calls me.

#

HIGHWAY 101 SOUTH, OUTSIDE OF MONTEREY

I’m in Adam’s car, staring out the window at an inky expanse of farmland when Paul’s call comes in. “Hello?”

“Tom!” he says eagerly. “I am trying to free Georgia from an elder Tzmitsce. I’m with Dr. Everton, and he suggests that things might go more smoothly if we offer a gift. I am coming up blank trying to think of interesting art or artifacts an elder Tzmitsce might appreciate.”

“Umm….” I consider calling him out on the stereotyping of calling the gay guy for antiquing advice but I decide to let it slide.

“Anyway, do you have anything old? I’ll buy it off you.”

I roll my eyes. All I have to my name right now is a small-sized armory and a thirty-year old painting done by a highschooler. “Well, all my vinyl’s been fenced.”

(Jason: “You know, those swords are pretty old….”)

“What about those swords?” Paul asks.

I freeze, looking at the magic shape-changing sword on my hip. I decide to play ignorant. “Umm…the Max swords? They’re back at my new place in the city.”

(Jason: “One of them isn’t….”
Me: “Yeah, I’m not giving up that sword, jackass!”
Jason: “Not even for another player?”
Me: “No!! I need it!!”)

“Who are you yelling at?” Paul asks.

“Nobody, don’t worry about it. Look, I’m on my way to Monterey for this boat job thing, even if I had something to trade for you I don’t think I would have time to get down there.”

“…Alright,” Paul says, though the skepticism in his voice is clear. “Well, I’ll try someone else.” He hangs up.

I shove my phone away and slouch in my seat. Yeah, I know the sword would have been perfect, and maybe by keeping it I doomed them to a fate worse than death, but I also know that it will come in useful in the fight against Accio, and any fight against Accio is a fight against Perpenna’s plans, which—whatever they are—are a guaranteed fate worse than death.

“That is a nice sword,” Adam says companionably.

“Shut up,” I mutter and go back to staring silently out the window.

#

HEARST CASTLE

Paul and Everton continue brainstorming about what to get for the Tzmitsce Voivode who has everything. Since it’s phone a friend time, Paul tries Marcus, whose best suggestion for a gift would be Georgia herself, but sadly Orlando already seems to have one of those. Paul then tries Bell, and even van Brugge, but neither of them answer. He paces in frustration, briefly considering Summoning someone to help him out…but then that leads him to a better idea.

He calls Sophia.

“…Paul?” she answers. “What’s up?”

“Black Spiral Dancers,” Paul says flatly. Everton looks at him curiously. “Are they categorically, unredeemably evil?”

There’s a few stunned moments of silence before Sophia responds. “Uh, well…so are you, technically….”

“But I mean if you judged them on their actions and not what they smelled like, would you consider that the case?”

Another pause. “…Yeah, pretty much. Paul what is this abo—“

“So if I was to offer a Black Spiral Dancer to an elder Tzmitsce, that would be kind of…on the level, then?”

Everton raises an eyebrow. Sophia takes almost a few seconds to respond. “Well…I’ve never met a Tzmitsce, but Alexander has worked with them in the past, so…yeah, probably. Paul…what are you planning?”

Paul nods, glancing up at the distant castle. “I’m trying to rescue Ms. Johnson, from a Voivode. Some sort of creepy, elder Tzmitsce…thing. Apparently if we present him—or her, or it—with a gift, we will be granted three nights’ hospitality. I am hoping that the opportunity to hunt a Spiral Dancer will be both not morally-offensive enough for me and intriguing enough for him.”

“Well, I don’t have any problem with someone killing a Spiral Dancer, but…how is that going to work?

“I have a plan, but I’ll need to know how far away she is before I’ll know if I can try it.”

Another pause. “…You want me to find the Spiral Dancer.”

“Is that too much to ask?”

“…Ill let you know,” she says uncertainly.

She hangs up, and Paul turns to Everton. “So. I have a good feeling about this. The Tzmitsce are interested in crafting odd things and I think a Black Spiral Dancer would be something novel.”

Everton stares at Paul, fingers drumming on his cane. “Well, that is inventive if nothing else, but are you going to be able to deliver?”

Paul looks at the castle again and grins. “I have faith.”

#

Georgia sits down to dinner, one again across from Orlando in the middle of the long bonecraft dining table. Fleshbeast servitors and dead-eyed ghouls lurk at the corners of the room, some of the latter looking so because they literally have no eyes. One steps forward to pour out glasses of deep, rich blood for the both of them. Orlando lifts its in a toast. Georgia returns the toast and takes a tiny, cautious sip of hers.

Pain, pain and fear that he cant escape, welling up from deep within, tearing out through mind and flesh, climbing toward the light in a great surge of—

Georgia makes a show of peering at the glass thoughtfully. “This is…an interesting vintage, I must say, but do you have any more of what you gave me last night? It was quite good.”

Orlando looks up from a long sip, a look of pleasure on its face. “Oh, perhaps. Let’s see what we can rustle up in the wine cellar. As I said, I hadn’t figured you to have such Ventrue afflictions.” It sends off a ghoul with a gesture, who some minutes later returns with a small goblet of new blood, darker even than the first. Georgia sniffs it and takes a careful sip.

It’s good. Really good, better than the stuff from last night. So good she doesn’t bother to stop herself from downing it all at once. Orlando watches her, face expressionless.

She puts down the glass and sighs in relief. “That was quite tasty.”

Orlando smiles and lifts its glass to her. “I’m glad to hear.”

Now that her hunger has abated, curiosity sets in. “Should…I ask where it comes from?”

“A chef never reveals his secrets.” Orlando says silkily, taking another sip of its drink. “How goes your search?”

Georgia tilts her head thoughtfully. “It’s been…most entertaining so far. I’ve been able to see some of the grounds, which have been lovely.”

“Good. I do like to show the manor and the grounds and so rarely get the chance.” It sighs. “The tourists make it difficult, but we make do.”

“Yeah, what do they think of it?”

Orlando draws a hand slowly along the bone-table. “Oh they don’t see it. Not as we do. The kine are…primitive creatures. To any without our vision it is fabric and leather.”

They continue to engage in pleasant dinner conversation. Orlando tells her briefly of the news from San Francisco, specifically the curfew and national guard establishing an expanding sphere of martial law. Georgia finds the concept perplexing, and Orlando finds it merely amusing, so they move on to other things, the tension between them glaringly absent on the surface level but undercutting the meal like magma.

Finally Orlando stands, excusing itself that it might make preparations to deal with the issue of…the new visitors. It bows to her. “I do hope that your next sojourn is as profitable as this one. You have found instructions to search the castle, have you not?” It smiles. “I should expect no difficulties; you are, afterall, an educated woman. Because it would be highly unfortunate to make a mistake.”

Georgia nods and glances at her empty glass. “Before you go, is there any more of that blood?”

Orlando’s grin widens and it gestures lazily. A ghoul steps up with a small flagon and pours her more. She drinks the glass with the same gusto as the first.

Orlando bows once again. “Goodday, Ms. Johnson. I shall see you tomorrow…one way or another.” It leaves in a sweep of robes. As soon as Georgia finishes her blood, she does as well.

She gets right to work, making her way back to the staircase and up to the second floor.  She finds the room identified on the map and opens the door. On first glance it looks like a bedroom, much like the one she found herself in the first night, creepy fleshbed and everything. But as she steps into the room, there’s a sudden jolt, and when her vision clears she is…somewhere else.

A massive, stone-lined vault, with cathedral-high ceilings and lit torches along the walls. A cold breeze stirs the flames, sending shadows dancing along the stone. She looks around, but there’s no sign of the door she stepped through to get there.  In front of her is a massive door, also made of stone, underneath an equally-massive stained-glass window. Light from somewhere beyond the window illuminates its red and black mosaic, which after a few moments she realizes contains words, in a heavy gothic script:

To Proceed, Speak As a Learned Man Would. Look to Jerome’s Work.
On the Two Score and First Psalm. The Eighth Part. The First Darkness.

Georgia stares at the window then looks around the vault again. Besides the torches, there is nothing else in the room. No carvings, no books, no other doors, just the chill breeze and the darkness.

She sighs, gathers her skirts to sit on the floor, then pulls out her phone and starts googling that shit.

#

MONTEREY

Anstis arrives in Monterey on the wing. Morgan needs to take the Revenge to port for the serious repairs, but Monterey—filled with tourists and the occasional modern naval-craft—isn’t the best option for that. Thus, Anstis heads in to look for me while the Revenge continues scouting the coast for safe harbor.

Now, to us, Monterey is a cute little town, more bedroom community than anything else, but to Anstis it is a bustling city, filled with comfortingly familiar signs of a sea-side life. He circles above the harbor, looking for signs of myself.

(Jim: “Um…double botch!”
Jason: “Oooooh good. I love double botches. Half the reason I make you guys roll so much is because I’m hoping for botches to fuck you over.”)

He spots a black towncar driving conspicuously slow the waterfront and glides down toward it. He paces it for a few blocks before it pulls into an alley and stops. He lands behind it and is just getting ready to shift up into human when the doors open and four large men get out. None of them are me.

Anstis hesitates, then springs back into the air to fly away, but before he can clear the alley, one of them tazes his feathery ass and he falls unconscious.

#

I arrive in Monterey, in Adam’s black towncar. We cruise through the town, hitting all the major public spots, looking for a pirate wandering around looking a little more legit than a costumed tourist. We cruise along the harbor, through the Presidio, and finally down into Cannery Row, but there’s no sign of Anstis anywhere. I try his phone but it goes to generic voicemail every time.

I do notice something, though: armed guards—like cops or maybe MPs—are scattered through the town in pairs, and more than a few of them stare suspiciously at our car as we pass, whispering into walkie-talkies.

I have Adam head back to the harbor and pull up at the base of the pier. I get out and survey the boats—mostly smaller private craft—and frown.

“Getting out or moving on?” Adam asks.

“I’m looking for my contact,” I mutter, still staring toward the sea.

“Well, you’re paying waiting rates.”

I glare at him and gesture toward the back seat.“Yeah but I also can’t go walking around with my hardware here in the middle of downtown Monterey.”

“Then why’d you bring it?”

My grip on the doorframe tightens. “Cause I’m going to a party,” I snap, “But the party is—“

#

Kara: “—Abyssum invocat in voce cataractarum tuarum omnia excelsa tua et fluctus tui super me transierunt.”
*conversation stops, everyone stares*
Me: “…Gesundheit?”
Jim: “What did you just do?”
Jason: *elegantly applauding* “She recited the 8th verse of the 41st psalm of St. Jerome’s latin translation of the Bible. And not a bad accent either. How’d you get it so fast?”
Kara: “I googled Jerome, and his wikipedia entry told me that he was a scholar and that one of his works was translating the new testament, so I searched for the 41st psalm, and it jumped me straight to verse eight.”
Jason: “Really? Straight to verse eight?”
Kara: “Apparently other people have searched for that verse.”
Jason: “Hmm. Well, all you really needed was the first word: abyssum. Which, of course, translates to ‘darkness.’ “

#

HEARST CASTLE

As Georgia recites the Latin, the stone door grinds open, revealing another room beyond, smaller than her current room and bright like gold. She gets to her feet and peers in. The reason it shines like gold is because it is covered in it. Gold-leaf vine motifs are painted on the walls, snaking across every surface like veins, but paradoxically enough, it seems to be one of the few rooms she’s seen that doesn’t have anything alive in it.

On the far side of the room is another door, with a simple rusty doorknob. She approaches it suspiciously, but that door opens easily, leading to a narrow, dark tunnel, plunging into the distance. She makes her way along it for some time, then comes to a rough-hewn antechamber facing three doors. Simple pictogram sigils are carved into the stone above the doors. Above the first door is what appears to be a handmirror, and above the second is the same handmirror, but shattered. The third door shows what looks like a heavy cauldron, pouring a liquid out.

She stares at the carvings then surveys the room, looking for more clues. After a few moments she realizes that the dust-soaked cracks on the floor have a fairly regular appearance to them. She blows and sweeps the dirt away to reveal another inscription:

Speak the Place and Enter.

She stares at the floor, then back up at the doors, slouching in frustration. There’s a lot less for her to google this time.

#

MONTEREY

“—The party is 50 miles offshore!”

Adam smiles apologetically. “‘Fraid this cab doesn’t swim.”

I grab my hair. “Well, do you know of any good leads I can check out around here to get more information?” I ask, fully expecting a roundabout answer.

Adam tilts his head thoughtfully. “Well, there’s a pretty good diner up the way.”

My eyes narrow. “Diner, huh? They open late?”

His grin widens. “The best ones always are.”

(Jim: “You actually got a straight answer out of him!”
Me: “I did! That makes me extremely suspicious!”)

I drum my fingers on the doorframe a few moments, glancing at the harbor again. “Urg. Fine, let’s check it out.”

He takes me away from the waterfront, into the civilian parts of town, and pulls up in the parking lot behind a small 24-hour diner. It’s quiet, the only signs of life a few shapes of patrons hunched over their tables inside. I get out of the car, go to grab my gear, and only then do I realize my new problem: I can’t go walking into a diner with Vera slung on my shoulder.

Adam watches in bemusement as I rummage around the trunk—not his trunk, certainly, since he’s in a different car every time I see him—and come up with a heavy woolen moving blanket. I wrap up Vera and the shotguns in one long bundle, and after a few moment’s hesitation decide to stash them behind a dumpster next to the back door of the diner.

(Jason: “Some bum is going to have the time of his life.”
Me: “Yeah, some bum isn’t going to be able to lift that thing.”)

I turn and give Adam a, “You got something to say?” look. He just smiles and waves jauntily as he pulls out of the lot and drives away. I glare after him another moment then go inside.

As I suspected, the place is mostly empty, just a few zombified patrons poking morosely at greasy food. A few of them glance up at me, double-taking at my sword and my whip, but I ignore them and stalk up to a seat at the counter. The waitress, a older woman as grizzled-looking at the food, saunters over and stares at me by way of greeting.

“Coffee,” I grumble, keeping an eye out for anything supernaturally-unusual.

She looks me up and down. “Black, I presume?”

“Yeah. Just like I like my men,” I mutter.

She rolls her eyes and pours me a mug. It smells like battery acid but luckily all I need it for is the ambiance. I clench it in front of me and wait for something to happen.

After a few minutes the front door opens. Three men walk in, two of them big stocky guys in suits, and the third a smaller, reedy-looking fellow, also in a suit but not a very good one. I sigh. Here we go…

He sees me, sneers, and comes over. “New in town?” he asks, looking me over.

I shrug, still staring at my coffee. “It’s been awhile, thought I’d visit the aquarium.”

“Aquarium is closed.”

“Yeah, that’s what they said about Cal Academy but I got a private tour.”

The man trades amused glances with his goons. “Yeah? Who set that up for you?” he says, disbelief evident in his tone.

I glower at my coffee. If all the disrespect I’ve been getting all over San Francisco isn’t enough, now I gotta deal with it in this seal-shit town. I let their laughter hang on the air a moment, then meet the thin man’s eyes. “Charles.”

Instantly the goons’ attitude changes, becoming more wary. The thin man, though, continues to look skeptical. “You know Charles? Charles who?”

“Steinhart,” I say flatly, taking a mock-victory sip of my coffee for effect.

(Me: “This just came to me! I don’t know what the hell I’m doing! But the half bottle of pink moscato certainly isn’t helping!”)

The thin man glances around the diner, then leans in. “How do you know Charles Steinhart?”

I shrug. “I went to Nightlife this week. Met him there. He gave me a tour of the private collections.” Sip.

The man stares another moment, then stands, smiling obsequiously. “Oh, well then, right this way, please!”

I freeze. “Where are we going?” I ask with forced nonchalance.

“Why, to the Aquarium! It’s why you came, afterall.” I search his face for signs of malicious intent, but he seems sincere. The goons too have turned down their alertness, now just waiting boredly, avoiding the glares of the waitress.

“Right. And…who are you?” I ask carefully.

The thin man frowns. “Mr. Steinhart didn’t tell you?”

“Ah, no….” I think quickly. “No, he said I was going to meet a contact but didn’t specify.”

His frown deepens, but it seems more wounded than suspicious. “He can be so rude….” he mutters, then looks to me. “My name is Stanley.”

Ahh.” I nod as if that means something. Well, I still don’t know where Anstis is, and for once I seem to be doing well with not pissing off the local authorities—whoever these assholes are—so maybe I should just run with this for awhile. I slap some money on the counter and stand up. “Alright, though can you meet me around the back? I have some things I need to pick up.”

#

(Jason: “Kara, how are you doing?”
Kara: “Uhhh, well so far I have found a list of spells that I could perform with a hand-mirror, and a plot summary for a made-for-TV movie starring the Olsen Twins.”
Jason: “…Okay, I might need to be a little less obscure:”)

Mirrors are alchemical symbols, usually meaning that a spell or whatever is being cast—or reflected back—on the one who cast it. As to the cauldron, the nearest connection she can figure out is that mirrors were once often made with mercury backings, and this could be a symbolic way to represent one being poured.

She looks across all the symbols. Taken together, they could represent a mirror in three stages: being made, being used, and being destroyed. Or perhaps a spell being used thusly.

But that still doesn’t tell her what the “place” she is looking for is.

(Kara: *after some googling* “—Poland?”
Jason: “…Hmm. Poland is a good one. I shall have to think if that’s sufficient. …Though I am curious as to your rationale, cause I suspect you got to it by totally alien means than what I had planned.
Kara: “I did! ‘In December of 2011, the third album of Belgian-Australian artist Gotye, Making Mirrors, went platinum in Poland.’”
Jason: “…Um, NO. Good try….”
Cameron: “That sounds like somebody that you used to know.”)

#

MONTEREY

I arrive at the Monterey Bay Aquarium with Stanley and his goons. I follow them inside, hefting my gear and trying not to stare around openly. Unlike Cal Academy, I have visited this aquarium before, many, many years ago, and I find myself curious to see what’s changed. They lead me down a wing I don’t remember existing before.

“I am so glad you decided to contact me,” Stanley says as we walk. “It has been so long.”

I glance around cautiously. “Ah. So long…since what, exactly?”

He looks at me, perplexed. “Since you reached out to me,” he says as if it were obvious.

“Oh. Well you know, the politics are…complex these days.”

He nods. “I understand you’re in a difficult position, being stuck up there. Camarilla to one side, Sabbat to the other. One hears the strangest rumors about whats going on up in the Bay these days, especially the East Bay. Crazed vikings and miniature Sabbat. Very strange. Well, at least the Camarilla will be getting a black eye.” He winks at me and smiles an oily grin. I return it weakly.

“Anyway,” Stanley continues, “I am glad you arrived tonight. As it happens. I have something very special to show you. You see, we, ah…had an intrusion. And, well…it will make an effective demonstration for something I have in mind. These creatures have to be kept in very controlled circumstances. We can’t let one loose.” He laughs. “The Masquerade would suffer and no one wants that. We’d have the Sabbat and the Camarilla crawling around here in no time.”

I laugh along with him but eye him and the goons. Perhaps this is one of them asshole-Anarchs the Prince of Oakland was whining about….

Stanley chuckles again and claps. “In any event, would you like the demonstration? It should be all prepared.”

I glance around suspiciously. “Suuuure….”

Stanley leads me to a heavily fortified, but empty, tank at the end of the wing and gestures at it proudly. “The setup is quite standard. The tank is warded, and we have electrodes embedded on the subject just in case. Don’t want to take any chances. I had the tank drained for this purpose, it allows us to appreciate the sound better.” He rubs his hands together. “Also, while I’m sure the water offers a range of possibility, I’m sure you’ll be employing this primarily on the land.”

“That’s true….” I say, suspicion leaking into my voice, mind running full-speed trying to keep up my cover, whatever the hell it is. I smile again as he glances at me. “And we are in a drought,” I finish.

“Yes, so I hear. Well, we luckily we don’t need water.” He winks at me.

“Ah, but we have to feed the crops, if you know what I mean!” I bark an exaggerated laugh and slap Stanley companionably on the shoulder. I worry for a moment that I’ve overdone it, but he just smiles and nods to another guard standing in the shadows nearby. The guard disappears into a side door, leaving me alone with Stanley and his two personal goons. We wait for a few minutes, staring at the empty tank. My nervousness, and my curiosity, about Stanley starts to get the better of me and I come up with a new idea to get more information.

“While you’re getting set up, mind if I go make a call?” I ask. Stanley nods, so I step out through a door onto one of the patios overlooking the tidepools and the bay. Stanley’s goons watch me through the glass. They don’t seem too concerned, but I force a slightly bored look on my face as I pull out my phone and call Slayer.

“Yeah?” he answers.

“Hey son. I’m down in Monterey at the moment and I just ran into this guy named Stanley at the aquarium—“

“WHAT!?”

“—And do you know anything about him?” I finish unnecessarily.

“YEAH! The man’s a fucking crazy son of a bitch!”

“Well, if you know him, I’m not surprised by that.”

“MAAAN! FUCK you!”

I roll my eyes. Ahh yes, the mating call of the captive Slayer. “Right, so who the fuck is he?”

“How the fuck do I know? He’s some crazy motherfucker lives in an aquarium!”

“Yeah, I figured that, I mean is he Anarch or what?”

“Man, I don’t know what the fuck he is. I don’t see no Sabbat, no Camarilla running around down there, so I’d assume.”

“Ok, well, what’s his deal?”

“I don’t know! The deal is you don’t go to fucking Monterey or you’ll wind up with your organs on his fucking table!”

I glance at the glass doors. One of the goons is now watching me curiously. I turn my back to him, directing any sound of my conversation out toward the water. “Well right now he thinks I’m supposed to be some other guy he had a date with or something. He’s about to show me some demonstration that he’s being all cryptic about in the exact creepy way that I hate.”

“Well what the fuck you want me to do about it!?”

I scowl. “Get me some information, jackass!” I hiss through gritted teeth.

“About WHAT!?”

“Who this guy is and what he wants!”

“I don’t fucking know!!!”

Ask someone!” I hiss again, clenching my jaw to keep from shouting.

“Who!?”

“Figure it out! Why the fuck do I keep you around if you can’t do this shit!?”

Slayer groans. “Alright, alright!” he sputters. “I’ll see what I can find!”

“Good! Text it to me!” I hang up the phone, take a minute to recompose a cool expression and head back inside.

#

Kara: “—France!”

Jason: “…Your reasoning?”
Kara: “That is where Jacques Lacan lived, and he came up with the mirror stage theory of childhood development: The Premirror, the Mirror, and the Postmirror stages.”
Jason: “…That is a damn fine interpretation. It is completely wrong, but it is a surprisingly on-the-nose interpretation of the evidence I gave you. In fact it’s so surprisingly on the nose I hesitated and thought maybe I should flash convert it into that. But…no.”

#

MONTEREY

Anstis wakes up in human form, strapped to a metal chair with a steel gag in his mouth, his arms tied behind him with heavy chain. A few men stand over him, tasers in their hands, grinning down at him sickly. Before Anstis can react, one of them puts his foot on the chair and tilts him backwards. He topples over and free-falls for some feet before crashing to a smooth concrete floor.

(Jason: “And all this because of a botch!”
Jim: “Fucking botches….”
Me: “You do still have your arms and legs, though.”
Jason: “Yeah it could be worse. Worst botch I ever saw was a quadruple botch. Didn’t happen to me, but…it was bad.”)

Anstis struggles against the chains and the chair but isn’t able to budge either. He does manage to roll onto his side, though, and get a better look at his enclosure. It seems to be some sort of tank, with tall glass walls bolted in between metal struts.

And on the far side of glass, standing next to a weasely-looking man and couple more goons, is myself, staring back at Anstis with growing concern.

#

Stanley turns to me, still grinning. “You’ll like this. Let him in!” he shouts. A heavy door within the far concrete wall of the tank opens, revealing some sort of darkened antechamber beyond. A shadow moves through it, then lurches into view under the halogen lights of the dry tank.

A Rokea, in full-on, mutated, Street-Shark form. It sees Anstis, tied up and frozen in surprise at its feet, then bares its wide maw in a growl that shakes the glass. Anstis’s eyes widen, then narrow, and he struggles harder against his chains.

I tense and look around, thinking quickly. Stanley’s gaze is glued to the tank, grinning greedily, and besides the two men with him, I don’t see anyone else at the moment. Maybe if I can take them out, I can cut in there in time to help Anstis out.

“Here, Stanley, can you hold this for a sec? I want to take a picture….” He turns just in time for me to dump Vera into his arms, stumbling under her weight and crashing to the floor.

Which, of course, now leaves my arms free.

While Stanley struggles under the gun and the goons are focused on the tank, I carefully reach for my sword.

#

HEARST CASTLE

Paul has time to work on his plan during the (very) long hike up to the castle, along the winding drive, the only sounds the unseen wildlife rustling in the grass and the ticking of Everton’s cane against the pavement.

“Doctor,” Paul says, “I assume that Spiral Dancers have the ability to move through this…Umbra of theirs?”

Everton nods. “Generally yes. My understanding is that most werewolves do. Why do you ask?”

“Because once we get to the door, I’m going to invite the Dancer.”

Everton stops. “You’re going to…Summon a Spiral Dancer?”

“Yes I am.”

Everton stares at him. “Mr. Stewart, correct me if I’m wrong, but your solution to dealing with one supernatural horror is to summon another?”

Paul smiles proudly. “Yes!”

(Me: “It’s worked before!!”)

Everton stares again. “I’m not going to ask if you’re mad, because I am not sure if I would like the answer, but are you feeling alright?” Everton asks.

Paul takes a deep breath, gazing around them at the moonlit hillsides. “Yeah, actually.”

Everton frowns and grips his cane. “Mr. Stewart, you and I will not survive the intersection of a Spiral Dancer and a Voivode.”

“Unless the Voivode is hunting her to its satisfaction. This is our gift, the opportunity of the hunt.”

Everton stares another moment, then continues walking. “Well if nothing else, it should be an interesting way to meet one’s end.”

They continue up the hill in silence, but after some minutes, Everton speaks up again. “Fascinating creatures, the werewolves.”

“Some of them, at least,” Paul says.

Most of them, particularly the ones that wish to kill you.”

“That’s a lot of them.”

“Yes, well the unfortunate prospect is that there aren’t that many of them to begin with. They talk a great game, but to be perfectly frank, I don’t see their numbers persisting for more than another century or two.”

Paul considers this a few moments, then shrugs. “They do seem to be somewhat dramatic, but then I can’t really fault them for it. I seem to wind up in all sorts of drama despite my efforts.”

Everton glances at him. “Welcome to the world, Mr. Stewart.”

They finally arrive at the castle, making their way through the terraced gardens to the front door of the manor. Everton raps the wood smartly with his cane, then steps back. Some minutes pass, then a ghoul opens the door, rheumy eyes staring at them vacantly from a hairless, boiled-red face with no jaw.

Paul looks startled, but pulls himself together. “Hello. My name is Paul Stewart and we are here to see the Voivode of the house.”

The ghoul stares a moment, wheezing, then steps aside to let them in. Everton looks questioningly at Paul. Paul focuses a moment, casts the Summons on the Spiral Dancer, then nods back. With that, they follow the creature inside.

It leads them to a large sitting room, filled with ornate furniture and draped in elaborate tapestries, one wall dominated by an immense carved mantle. In front of this mantle, sitting in one of the chairs, is the creature who can only be Orlando. Its body is relaxed underneath its rich silk dressing gown, but its eyes watch Paul and Everton intently as they enter. “Well. Who have we here?” it says.

Paul makes an attempt at a bow. “Hello, I am Paul Stewart, and this is Dr. Corwin Everton.”

Orlando tilts his head calculatingly. “Yes, I have heard of you. You are a technology magnate of some renown, are you not?” It chuckles lightly. “I have ears in many places, Mr. Stewart, some where you would not expect them to grow. Why do you come to this castle?”

“An associate of mine, Georgia Johnson, seems to be in your care.”

“She is my guest. You are not,” it says matter-of-factly.

Paul and Everton glance at each other. “Indeed. I apologize for the intrusion, and I should like to make it up to you with a gift.”

“A gift? And what manner of gift have you brought? The Toreador, perhaps? Or has he  brought you?”

“Uh, not quite. I am hoping my gift is more interesting than either of us.” Paul clears his throat and launches into his best formal voice. “Should it please you, I should like to present to you the opportunity to hunt—or do whatever else you may please—a Spiral Dancer.”

Orlando’s expression barely changes, but its clear from its voice that whatever it was expecting, that was not it. “The opportunity to hunt a Spiral Dancer….” It repeats slowly. “Am I to take from this that you have no Spiral Dancer to give?”

“I know the whereabouts of one, and should you like to participate, I am happy to bring her closer.”

“So you are being hunted by a Spiral Dancer and would have me relieve you of the problem.”

Paul hesitates. “Rather…I presume, though I’ve only just met you, that things unique and unusual intrigue you, and it is within my power to present you this opportunity.”

Orlando’s eyes narrow. “Do you know what a neonate is, Mr. Stewart? A neonate is a vampire who erroneously thinks that because his elders were sired prior to the invention of his gadgets that they must be completely…stupid. “

Paul stares back. “You’ll forgive me, I thought that was the definition of a vampire.”

Orlando stares for a long moment, tension in the room mounting. Paul remains expressionless, and Everton’s grip on his cane tightens. Finally, Orlando chuckles and resettles himself in his chair. “An opportunity to hunt a Spiral Dancer, is it? And what am I to do with a Spiral Dancer?”

Paul glances around at the tapestries and furnishings of the room, which become creepier and creepier the longer he looks at them. “I’ve seen a very small sampling of your work, but I imagine that given the Spiral Dancer to begin with, you could turn it into…well, anything you wanted.”

Orlando examines the arm of his chair, tracing a finger along the veins of the upholstery. “I am not a Toreador. While the prospect of creating art pleases me, it does not enthrall me.” It looks up. “But it takes a thing of doing to walk into my castle and offer me such a thing. What is your concern with the Tremere?”

“She has come along with me on many adventures, and there are many more yet to face.”

“She is on one now. She seeks to reclaim from me something that is mine by right. She has been afforded this opportunity because it pleases me. If your death pleases me it too will come, do not doubt this,” Orlando says with a smile.

“I don’t,” Paul says.

Orlando tents its fingers. “Where is the Spiral Dancer?”

“Do you wish her to come here?”

“If I wished her to come here I would tell you to bring her, but I asked where she is.”

“She is north of here. On the move, we’re tracking her. I would have to make some phone calls to find out specifically where.”

“Then do so.”

Paul trades a flat glance with Everton as he steps out of the room, pulling out his phone to call Sophia.

“…Yeah?” she says with teenage elegance.

“Sophia! Any luck with the Dancer yet?”

“…Uh, you didn’t give me a lot of time, Paul, I’m trying…. She’s not exactly leaving a big electronic footprint, you know?”

“Any idea about area? Range?”

“Is this a pressing matter?”

Paul glances at the door. “Um. Somewhat.”

“How pressing?”

“Uh, lives hanging in the balance sort of pressing?”

She sighs. “Okay, um…well, it’s easier to invent a Spiral Dancer than to find one, Paul, so…just say she’s in Pinole. Give me a few minutes and anyone looking online will see that she’s there.”

“Sounds good,” Paul whispers and hangs up. He returns to the parlor and reports to Orlando.

“Pinole?” It frowns. “Pinole is a long way from this place. How will you bring it to me?”

Paul puts on a confident smile. “It is within my power.”

Orlando watches him a moment, then nods. “Bring it then. I will give you…two nights to bring the werewolf. The same two nights that remain to your Tremere friend. You will stay as my guests. And if you do not bring the werewolf in those two nights, you will take her place.” Orlando glances between them, suddenly thoughtful. “Although…there are two of you, and only one werewolf…is she to stand as gift for both of you?”

Everton and Paul trade a glance, but before they can speak, Orlando lifts a hand. “I’ll tell you what. That phone you were using a moment ago, Mr. Stewart, that can be your second gift. I understand it is very advanced, and I have never used one, you see.”

Paul glares and hands over the phone begrudgingly. Orlando takes it with a smile and stands, sweeping its silks around it. “Come. I offer you bread and salt, as is customary. Dine with me tomorrow and the night after, and we shall discuss many things. In the meantime, Ms. Johnson is in the north-east wing. You may seek her out, or you may explore my castle and its grounds, but do take care. Some of the denizens are quite hungry. And so are some of the furnishings.”

Paul and Everton move to follow Orlando from the room, carefully skirting the chairs in the room, but it stops suddenly in the doorway, resting long fingers on Paul’s arm as he passes. “There is a door in the basement,” it says smoothly, “One that Ms. Johnson is currently attempting to open. She may succeed, she may not. We shall see. But if you attempt to open that door, you will die a death of a thousand years, one nerve at a time.” It stares at Paul a moment, then smiles elegantly once again. “Otherwise, please enjoy your stay.”

#

Georgia is still standing in front of the cryptic doors, running down Wikipedia rabbit holes on her phone, when she hears footsteps behind her. She turns…and sees Paul and Dr. Everton.

“Paul!” she cries, a long-dead part of her heart stirring strangely at the sight of him. “Dr. Everton! What are you doing here?”

“That is a good question,” Everton mutters, staring at the carvings in the room.

“Well, what’s better than rescuers?” Paul asks. “Companions!” He throws his arms out and beams proudly.

“What…do you mean, ‘companions?’” Georgia asks cautiously.

“I’m afraid that Mr. Stewart has accepted the hospitality of your host,” Everton says darkly. “In the best tradition of his nationality, Mr. Stewart has decided it is best to hang together lest we hang separately.”

“Well, Orlando says we can explore the castle, except for this one door in the basement. If anyone but you opens it, bad shit will happen,” Paul says.

“Ah,” Georgia droops slightly. “The one I asked for your help with…you can’t help me?”

“I can’t open it,” Paul says with a wink.

Georgia frowns. “Yes, but there are three locks in the door and I don’t understand how I’m supposed to turn three keys at once by myself….”

“Well, you are Tremere, I’m sure you have other ways.” Everton gestures to the three doors before them and taps his cane against the inscription on the floor. “What have we here?”

Everton verifies that the carvings are alchemical symbols. As well as their reference to spells, they also can represent the concept of past, present, and future, specifically relating to self-reflection and other touchy-feeling hermetic nonsense. But how they relate to “Speak the Place and Enter” is still unclear.

Georgia decides to try something. “Hearst Castle!” she announces at the doors. Moments later, the door under the carving representing Present slides open.

They all look at each other. “Well, that was simple enough,” Everton says. “Odd that there would be a door for Future, though, you can’t be expected to know that.” They glance at the Future door, then hesitate. The carving over it has disappeared. Same too for the Past door.

Georgia, obviously deciding to try some deductive powers of the scientific method she must have picked up from hanging around with Dr. vonNatsi, decides to explore this more. She laboriously slides the Present door closed. The moment it does, the other two sigils reappear.

“Bratislava Chantry,” she announces next. The Past door opens this time. Georgia nods, the pieces of the puzzle starting to fall into place. They slide it closed, then turn to look at the Future door.

(Kara: “…Golcanda?”
Jason: “Uh, no. Nice try, but no. And considering other things…no. Also it’s not a place, it’s a state of being, like nirvana.”)

They decide that things being what they are and time being of the essence, the Present door is perhaps the best option right now. Georgia announces “Hearst Castle” again, the door opens, and they step through.

The rest of the castle isn’t on the other side, though. Instead they find themselves in a darkened space, lit by a single light from overhead. To be more clear, they each individually find themselves in a separate darkened space, with no sign of the others.

But they are not alone. In her space, Georgia is facing the figure of Orlando. And in his space, Paul is facing the figure of the Spiral Dancer.

#

(Jason: “And now we have a wonderful situation, wherein all four of you get to roll me initiative.”
Me: “But we’re in different locations, facing different targets!”
Jason: “I know! We are holding a four-way single combat run, simultaneously.”
Me: “…Have you done this before?”
Jason: “Nope!”

So yes. Jason ran four different combat scenarios at the same time, turn by turn among us. For ease of reading, of course, I’m going to group the actions of each character together, but I just wanted to share what Jason did in case you hadn’t yet figured out how bad-ass he is yet.)

#

TOM, MONTEREY

Stanley’s men are so engrossed with the scene in the tank before them, they don’t notice Stanley struggling under Vera. While they’re still distracted, in one movement, I unsheathe my sword and slice at the first of the goons. The sword doesn’t appear to change form this time, but his head flies off all the same. Keeping the momentum going, I continue the strike, angling toward the second guy.

(Me: *rolls* “Umm…so…can you botch a damage roll?”
Jason: “What? No, you can’t botch a damage roll. You can, however, fail it.”
Me: “Ok, cause…I have four 1’s….”
Jason: *explodes into laughter* “Well, on the one hand it is a damage roll, but on the other hand, it is essentially a quadruple botch—“)

My sword swings through the air, directly at the second goon’s neck…

….And misses.

Blood flies from my blade, splattering across his suit and face, but he is otherwise untouched. He blinks in surprise, touches the stain on his shirt, then glares up at me. “This was a nice suit,” he rumbles.

Then he pulls out a handgun and shoots me in the face.

(Me: “Oh NOO!!! I’m the only one who can shoot people in the face!”
Jason: “Pretty sure you’re not!”)

My world explodes in darkness and pain, pain that cuts through me, mainlining down my spine into the beast writhing at my core, a dark force that recoils, then rises up, obliterating all sensation in pure, mindless rage—

And then…nothingness.

#

ANSTIS, MONTEREY

The Rokea stalks toward Anstis, still bound on the floor. Unable to break free, he drops into parrot-form and crawls out from under the chains, fluttering away just as the shark lunges at him. Anstis whirls around and slashes back at the shark with his adorable macaw feet razor sharp talons. The shark twists and roars, teeth gnashing, gills flailing, trying to get at him, but Anstis holds on tightly. He secures a better grip and pierces through the thick skin with his beak.

And draws blood. And drinks it.

And then he frenzies too.

#

GEORGIA, HEARST CASTLE

Georgia stares at Orlando in front of her, slowly takes a breath—

“Why hello!” she says.

(Jason: “…Just that?”
Kara: “Yep!”
Jim: “Only a madman starts with combat.”)

Orlando smiles, extends a hand…then twists up into something absolutely massive and absolutely terrifying, a bulging monstrosity of muscles and spines and claws like H.R. Geiger crossed with a Rodin sculpture. A form as alien to its normal body as its normal body is to her, but it still is a form which Georgia recognizes. Zulo-form, the war-form of the Tzmitsce.

She sighs. “So it’s to be like that, then?” Something about this situation seems more than a little fishy, though, so she aura-reads the figure of Orlando in front of her—

(Kara: “…Umm. Triple botch.”
Jason: “…You triple botched an aura read.
Jim: “Botching an aura-read means false information.”
Jason: “Single-botching an aura-read means false information. Triple botching is false information of the gods!”)

Light explodes behind Georgia’s eyes, overloading all her senses, then she crumples to the floor, unconscious.

(Jason: “…which is in no way to allow me more time to figure out what I’m going to do with this.”)

#

PAUL, HEARST CASTLE

The Spiral Dancer, a blonde woman built entirely of lean muscle and anger, snarls at Paul, then explodes up into her mutated hyena-wolf form and charges. He jumps out of the way moments before she crashes into him, but she still swipes him with her claws. Deep rents slash him from shoulder to spine, slicing muscle and neurons. Pain explodes across his back as his legs go out from under him, and he too falls to the floor unconscious.

#

(Jason: “Jesus. Everyone is going to wind up dead or in a frenzy. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea after all.…”
Chris: “We’re going to wake up and find out that all three of us were killed tonight, and it was all by Tom.”
Jason: “No, but…perhaps I should leave you with what the situation is when you awaken.…”)

#

HEARST CASTLE

Paul wakes up on a cool stone floor and sits up, groggily. He’s back in the antechamber of the doors, facing the Present door they just stepped through. There’s no sign of the werewolf, nor the terrible damage she did to him. There’s no sign of Everton, either.

But there is sign of Georgia. She is still in the Present room, just on the other side of the door, curled up in a fetal position and mumbling to herself in a language Paul doesn’t understand.

He climbs to his feet. “Georgia?” he calls gently.

She doesn’t respond.

#

MONTEREY

Anstis wakes up underwater, nestled amongst a rocky reef. His vision is sharp but strangely bifurcated, and it takes him a moment to realize he is in octopus form. He also takes stock and realizes he is full of blood. Really full. Absolutely gorged in a way he has not been for a very long time.

He shifts against the rocks, but he is so tangled up in them he can’t move far. In fact, his legs are wrapped completely around some of them, slicing and squeezing. They’re strangely soft for rocks, and not as heavy as he might expect—

And that’s when he realizes. They’re not rocks, they’re boats. Dozens and dozens of them, small craft of every make and size, wrapped up in his razor-tipped tentacles and scattered across the dark plain at the bottom of Monterey Bay.

(Me: “He’s a hugger.”)

#

I wake up outside, flat on my back, staring at a foggy night sky. The air echoes with a chorus of car alarms, screaming across multiple blocks, but besides that it’s silent. I groan and roll up to a seat.

I am in the middle of a street, surrounded by abandoned cars, jostled around and stopped at odd angles, as if their owners abandoned them quickly. Some of them are crashed, their alarms adding to the cacophony. My eye, though, is drawn to the car next to me. It’s a police car, smashed and overturned, and streaked with gore, spilling out of the cabin and onto the street….

…In a trail that leads right to me, matching the blood that I realize with horror covers me from head to foot.

I scramble up and stare around. More blood is scattered around me, in and amongst the cars, associated with unidentifiable chunks that I realize are body-parts. My terror mounts, but I freeze as I look down the slope toward the water.

The fog, I now realize, isn’t fog, it’s smoke, great black billowing clouds of it, pouring up from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, ablaze in a raging inferno.

END OF NIGHT

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