10/9/2014

Jim: “Is this in the top 3 worst things that Paul’s summoned?”
Jason: “No…wait…yes. Probably yes.”
Me: “Well he summoned Perpenna…and Heinrich Himmler….”
Chris: “Would you believe I really enjoy off-label uses of Presence?”
Jason: “I’ve noticed.”
Jim: “Did he summon the Mokole?”
Chris: “Not yet….”

***

HEARST CASTLE

Georgia, who was last seen panic-frenzying from the bloody field of mutated farmworkers made out of the corpses of her friends, finally comes back to her senses…and is relieved to find herself surrounded by the wrought bone and flesh-furniture of the regular part of the castle. There’s no sign of the room of the mirror doors, though there is also no sign of Paul or Dr. Everton. Still, Georgia doesn’t hesitate in getting back to the business of solving Orlando’s puzzles so she can get out of there.

She wanders the slightly-pulsating hallway and eventually finds herself in what appears to be an operating theater, scrupulously clean but with the faint stains of old blood in a few places. The exit from that room leads her into a cool room with meat hooks hanging from the ceiling (because of course there fucking are), but that room is a dead-end. She backtracks to the operating theater and finds another door, but that one is locked fast.

Unperturbed, Georgia strides to one of the operating benches and opens a drawer. She digs through the hideous instruments therein until she finds a small dentist’s mirror. She performs [whatever new blood ritual she’s using now], smashes the mirror, and walks calmly through the locked door.

Now, the nice thing about this ritual is that, apparently as well as making her incorporeal, it makes her invisible, which is useful now, since on the other side of the door is a figure in solid plate armor, holding a halberd and staring at the door, as if waiting for someone to come through it. She stares at him a moment, walks through him, then continues calmly down the stairs behind him, dropping the ritual once she’s out of sight.

#

Paul slowly comes to as well…

…But he is still in the creepy blood field, still surrounded by the creepy flesh workers, who are still lurching toward him with their creepy mouth-hands.

Paul holds up his hands, still rocking his Majesty. “Can anyone tell me what has happened since the year 20xx!?

They lurch to a stop, staring at him, then, as one, look up to the sky. Paul follows their gaze.

An enormous red cloud, like fog under the fires of Armageddon, encircles the city, spinning up over them in a vortex.

(Chris: “Oh my god! I’m in Mortal Kombat 3!”
Jason: “…Yes. Yes, you are in Mortal Kombat 3.”
Chris: “I find Liu Kang.”
Jason: “Liu Kang bicycle kicks you.”
Chris: *taken aback* “Why, are we not on the same side?”
Jason: “Because you’re a vampire.”
Chris: “…But I’m a good vampire!”
Jason: “Yeah, well, he doesn’t know that.”
Chris: *pouts*
Jason: “…Fine, then, because you’re in MORTAL KOMBAT!!!!”)

Paul stares up at the sky, then back at the workers. “No, really, can anyone at least tell me how many years it has been since 20xx?”

“Millions. And none,” comes a voice behind him. Paul turns.

A man is standing a few yards away, between the rows of blood plants, dressed in an unimposing suit, ignoring and ignored by the workers.

Perpenna.

Paul frowns. “That’s…quite a range, as reckoned in the years of men.”

“No one reckons that anymore.”

“So what happened?”

Perpenna smiles. “Care to find out?”

“Does that mean you’ll answer my question and describe it, or is that supposed to be a threat?”

Perpenna’s smile widens. “Care to find out?”

“Um, no. Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourself. How did you wind up…around, I guess?”

Perpenna’s smile turns into a sneer. “That would be telling.”

Paul points emphatically. “It would be telling. It would be exactly that.”

“No…” Perpenna sighs, “Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?”

Paul stares around the fields a moment, searching for inspiration. “I…like cucumber and tomato salads.”

“No, you don’t,” Perpenna says flatly, “You used to.”

“No, I still do. I just can’t eat them.”

“They disgust you,” Perpenna says.

“No, no they don’t,” Paul maintains.

Perpenna grins again. “Then eat one.” He points to the ground. Paul looks down…and see’s a cucumber and tomato salad sandwhich sitting on a plate next to him. Paul picks it up, picks off the bread, and eats the cucumber and tomato.

Then immediately vomits it back up into the dirt.

“Well,” Paul gasps once it’s done, “I liked the cucumber and tomato. I didn’t like the vomit, but I recognize them as different things.”

Perpenna watches him flatly. “You don’t recognize anything.”

Paul looks at the masticated mess. “Well…that piece was tomato, and that piece was cucumber…and maybe that’s a little cilantro—“

“You’re wasting your time, get out,” Perpenna suddenly says with a sharp wave. Darkness drops on Paul like a suffocating shroud.

After a few moments, the shroud clears, revealing a blank room of stone with one door. He exits it and finds himself back in the foyer of the Mirror Doors.

He smiles at the doors, pleased with his successful escape, when footsteps suddenly echo on the stone behind him.

#

Georgia descends the stairs and exits into a massive ballroom, with carved baroque panels, heavy curtains, and overstuffed ornate chairs. The room is dark, lit only by the moonlight coming in through the windows, but surprisingly the decor is actually normal velvet and wood instead of flesh and bone. On the far side of the room is a raised stage, hidden by yet more curtains. She crosses the room, the rustling of her robes the only sound, and pulls back the curtain.

The stage is empty but for one small object in the middle of it: a carved mask, like a classical Greek tragedy mask. Georgia stares at it a moment, then drops the curtain and leaves the stage without touching it.

(Plothook…dodged!)

She exits the ballroom through a door on the far side and finds herself in an antechamber outside the dining room. Now that she’s back somewhere she recognizes, she tries to backtrack her way to the secret portal that will take her to the room of the Mirror Doors, but while she is studying her map, her phone rings. She looks at it, but doesn’t recognize the caller. In fact, it’s not even a recognizable number, just a string of alphanumeric characters. She stares at it a few rings, buzzing in her hand, then shoves it back in her pocket till it stops.

(Plothook…dodged!)

With that, she sets off to find the Mirror Doors.

#

Paul freezes as the steps approach, turning slowly….

…To see Georgia coming down the hall.

Paul relaxes. “I’m glad to be done with these doors,” he says as she enters.

“Yeah, so here’s the thing, there should have been a key in this room. We didn’t get a key. That means we did something wrong.”

(Jason: “Or the game is buggy.”
Kara: “We can submit a ticket to a GM and see if they can give us a key.”
Jim: “There’s one item you forgot to click in the darkness in the corner.”
Jason: “You did not go on a sufficiently detailed pixel-hunt.”
Kara: “Yeah. I’m going to have to mouse-over everything.”
Jim: “Hold down tab while searching the room next time.”)

They discuss what they saw in the future-San Francisco and the field, but mostly Paul relates the strange exchange with Perpenna that happened after she left. Specifically, Paul realizes that Perpenna seemed to be lacking in his usual towering imposing darkness, and didn’t actually seem to be that interested in talking to Paul, even before his gastronomic interlude.

They decide to try checking out more cities with the future door, the first one coming to mind being Portland, but the door doesn’t open.

“That’s strange, Chicago worked earlier,” Paul muses.

“Did you want to go to Chicago?”

“Well, we already went to San Francisco, but there was nothing there but riddles and cucumber salad….” His eyes suddenly light up. “Do you think it has to be a city? Maybe it could be a national park. The US has hundreds of amaaaazing national parks—” Paul’s eyes glaze over as he starts rhapsodizing about purple mountains majesty from sea to shining sea.

Georgia waits for him to run out of steam. “Do any of them look like Italy?” she finally interjects.

Paul cocks his head. “Well, actually there’s a state park not far from San Francisco up in Sonoma that might be. Annadel State Park. It has the largest collection of California native bunchgrasses anywhere on the west coast, and the most amaaaazing old growth oak forests—“

Georgia turns to the door. “Annadel State Park,” she announces sharply. There’s a pause, then the door grinds open again. She drags Paul through, still babbling about chaparral.

But the other side is not an old growth forest, and there’s no grasses to be seen. It’s a barren moonscape, scorched and sterilized down to jagged rock. The wind carries sharp dust and the smell of rotting, rancid flesh. Beyond the naked hills around them, the horizon is once again a swirling wall of flickering red. They move forward cautiously, but Paul stumbles on something and looks down.

It’s not just rock they’re walking on, but bones, blackened bones, human and bestial, some of the latter immense.

They stare around. Dozens and dozens of skeletons surround them. “This isn’t right,” Paul mumbles, “The park isn’t normally this populated….” He examines a nearby skull, like a large gorilla skull, but with fangs the size of hippo tusks, and tries to take a picture with his phone.

A noise suddenly comes from behind them, a skittering and crunching. They turn in time to see a figure come around one of the rolling hills. Thin, burnt-blackened, and stumbling, but heading their direction. By the vague shape, it’s a young woman. Putrid odor rolls off her bubbled skin. Her eyes have been slashed out, blood and black ichor flowing down her face, but still she seems to stare at Paul and Georgia as she lurches forward.

Paul and Georgia freeze, uncertain what to do. The woman opens her mouth to speak, but barely any sound comes from her torn throat. They move cautiously closer, and once they do more details become clear.

She’s saying Paul’s name, over and over again. And it’s Sophia.

“Sophia! What happened!?” He gingerly touches her arm, her flaked skin like fried chicken under his touch. She wobbles and collapses into him but doesn’t respond.

(Jason: “I’m surprised Paul’s first reaction wasn’t, ‘What did Tom do?’”)

Georgia stares. “This is Sophia? …Why was she saying your name?”

“You remember your assailant,” comes a drawling voice from the hill above them. They look up.

(Chris: “Is it Perpenna?”
Jason: “No…It’s Flagg.”
Kara: “Well, same thing.”)

Jeremiah Flagg stands over them, black frock coat billowing in the ill wind. “You always remember your assailant,” he repeats.

“You’re saying Paul did this to her?” Georgia asks.

“You all did,” he drawls. “You are the unclean, you despoil all you reach. I see it in your eyes, the ravings of a madman to be tossed aside. The great Tremere who understands the world.

“I don’t claim to understand the world,” Georgia says.

Flagg sneers. “But you do toss my words aside.”

“Well, they’re not really of much use to me are they?”

“Then what are you doing here?”

Paul raises a hand. “Point of fact, where is here exactly?”

Flagg turns his piercing gaze on him. “Anywhere you choose to make it.”

Sophia suddenly goes limp, slumping out of Paul’s arms. Georgia catches her, but Paul steps away, glaring at Flagg. “So are you indicating that no matter where we go in the future, were going to see destruction like this because were going to cause it?”

“Maybe. Through action or omission.”

“Ok…is there a way to prevent that?”

Flagg chuckles. “Oh, grasping at straws are ya? You cant change your spots.”

Georgia sighs. “So is there a most efficient way to bring it about, then? If we have to do this, we might as well do it well….”

Flagg’s eyes narrow under the long shade of his hat. “Do you even know if you’re serious anymore?”

Georgia considers this and nods. “Yes.”

“I doubt that. You waste your time with banter and sterile wit.”

Georgia blinks. “Do…you have dirty wit?”

Paul glances at Sophia’s unconscious body and frowns. “Why are you talking to us? Have you said what you want to say?”

Flagg smiles again, a smile of righteousness and judgement. “You don’t even know what I am. You don’t understand the questions, why should I answer with something you wont know.” He gazes over the hellscape around them. “Enjoy,” he says, then turns and walks away.

He disappears over the hilltop, the wind erasing any sign of his passing. Georgia and Paul stare a moment, then Georgia turns to Paul. “I don’t like this room.”

Paul scrambles up the hill after Flagg, but when he clears the top, there’s no sign of him. Instead, in the valley below, stretching into the distance, are rows of enormous wooden crosses, upside down, the bodies nailed to them engulfed in flame. Within the fires the bodies are moving, writhing and screaming in agony as the flames burn but do not consume them.

Paul scrambles down the slope to the nearest one and tries to scoop ash and dirt over the fire, but nothing abates it. The body above him continues to scream and he looks up into its face. The skin is split, the fat underneath hissing and boiling, but the face is still recognizable. It’s Gates, his personal assistant.

Paul stumbles back. Now that he’s closer, he sees that all the crosses bear senior Tesseract employees, twisting in eternal agony. Paul falls to his knees, sobs catching in his clenched throat, and stares until Georgia finally catches up with him, still supporting the limp form of Sophia.

“Paul,” she lays Sophia down and reaches out to him, “It’s just a vision, it’s not real—“

It’s a mean vision!” he snaps, batting her hand away.

“It is! Tzmitsce are horrible!”

“I’m afraid you don’t know the half of it….” comes a new voice. They turn to once again see a figure approaching them through the wasteland. A figure with a cane. Dr. Everton.

“Dr. Everton!” Georgia cries, “How did you get here?”

“Actually I’ve been here for some time,” Everton says, eyeing the crosses suspiciously as he approaches them.

“Are you real or part of the vision?” Georgia asks.

“Well, let’s find out, shall we?” Everton shifts his cane into his other hand and slaps the dry-sobbing Paul across the face. “Does that focus your mind a bit? Are you feeling pain and shock that you were just slapped?”

“Yes!” Paul says indignantly, rubbing his cheek.

“Good, then that means I’m real, so allow me to redirect your attention to the rest of these damn corpses.”

Paul glares at Everton but climbs back to his feet.

“Doctor,” Georgia asks, “How did you get here?”

“The same way you did, through the damn door.” He gestures with his cane. “I’ve been throughout this vision here, moving in advance of you, and it’s the same all around. I was in London for a time, or what’s left of it.”

“We tried going to Portland earlier, but it didn’t work….”

“Yes, well, it wouldn’t. You see there is no Portland. Something has consumed half of Oregon.”

(Me: “Ooo, maybe it’s that fungus that lives under the forest.”
*blank stares*
Jason: “…What?”
Me: “There is a mychorrizal fungus that is believed to be the largest contiguous organism. It lives in the soil and has a symbiotic relationship with the plant roots, but the same fungus organism covers this one entire forest in Oregon.)

“Well, how to we defeat the vision and get the key?”

“Defeat is the wrong word, Ms. Johnson. You’re not going to defeat this place, you have to resolve it.”

She looks at the hellscape. “Well I dont see a way to reverse this.”

“No, I don’t either. Any particular reason you can think of as to why were standing here looking at  it? How did you come to be here?”

“Well, we went through the Future Door…it was supposed to show me my future, but it seems to be showing Paul a lot of things.”

“Yes, well it’s entirely possible your futures are intertwined.” Everton watches them suspiciously a moment. “If I do read my vampires correctly, there is something of a blood connection, is there not?”

Georgia and Paul glance at each other, then quickly away, shuffling nervously. “Something like that.”

“Hmm.” Everton taps his cane into the ash thoughtfully a few moments before continuing. “I don’t know what this future is, but it is an exceptionally unpleasant one, and I have a feeling it is the one we are intended to bring about through our inaction, or being destroyed by Perpenna. Is that your werewolf friend?”

He points at Sophia’s body. “Well, it was,” Georgia mumbles. Paul kneels next to her. Sophia is unconscious, but still breathing.

“Indeed. Werewolves are quite durable, but even they should not be alive after something like that, so why in the world is she….” He gestures to the other crosses, still screaming behind them. “Why are the rest of these?”

“To send us a message?” Georgia suggests.

“I did a quick bit of looking about. Are you familiar with the interstate known as 80? Runs from here to New Jersey? Every six feet has one of these crosses. The entire length. But those are all dead, and these are not. Whats the common factor?” He turns to face Paul. “I’m afraid it’s you, Mr. Stewart. Something has kept these alive because of you. I think this is Perpenna’s doing and I think he has a rather personal streak in this matter. I think you earned his ire.”

Paul stares at the tortured shapes of his employees. “I can say nothing to refute that.”

“Yes. But,” Everton turns to Georgia, “My dear, I am not sure how this assists you in your quest for some damn key.  If I might be so bold as to ask…you haven’t any dependents to nail to a cross?”

“No…though, well, there’s my ghoul. Bob.”

“You’ll forgive me, my dear, but you’re a Tremere. Your ghoul is a piece of property, not an emotional resonance. You’re not allowed to form an attachment to that ghoul and you know it.”

“Well, if this is about me, Perpenna wants to strike where it hurts,” Paul says.

“No, Mr. Stewart, I don’t believe it is about you. I believe this is a manifestation of what Perpenna wants, but we’re not in Perpenna’s castle, and you are not the one Orlando has taken such an interest in. So if we wish to find this key, perhaps, Ms. Johnson, we need to find something that you give a damn about. If, and you will forgive my candor, such a thing can be found at all.”

Georgia shrugs. “Well, I admit I don’t have many worldly attachments. No property….”

“…No ties to the mortal realm, your family long since buried, dislocated by several centuries….”

Georgia’s shoulders droop very slightly. “…Indeed….”

“So, by what means would Perpenna seek to get at you? What do you value?”

Georgia is quiet a moment. “…Paul,” she whispers.

(Me: “Aww.”)

“And yet Paul stands here.” Everton regards him again, face calculating. “But, if you’ll forgive me, perhaps I know where we may find the key….” Paul frowns suspiciously at Everton’s sudden change in tone and takes a step back….

…Moments before Everton whips his sword out of his cane and slashes at him.

Georgia yells and dives in front of him, taking the gash across her torso. Everton stops, surprised, and she screams and stumbles back.

“Whoah, whoah!” Paul holds up his hands. “Just…ask first, man!”

“That would somewhat defeat the purpose, I’m afraid,” Everton says, and lunges at Paul again.

Give me the sword!” Paul barks in full Majesty. Everton stops and immediately flips the hilt around, blinking in confusion. Paul jerks it from his hands. “Which cavity is it in?”

Everton’s eyes narrow as he realizes what’s happened. “I don’t know.”

Paul stares evenly back at him, then slashes at his own abdomen. A gash wells up, but the angle is two awkward to cut more than that. Instead, he drops the sword, and, gritting his teeth, tears into the wound with his own hands.

Georgia clutches at her face, gone even paler than normal, and even Everton steps back with a look of horror. Paul screams as his fingers dig through his flesh, tearing the hole open and reaching through Vitae and vitals for any sign of a key, gore oozing out to drip on the charred ground below.

Georgia’s blood bond tears at her, agitating her Beast. She screams once…then loses control as it’s finally whipped into a frenzy. She screams again, bestially this time, and Paul looks up just in time to see her leaping toward him—

—Then everything goes black.

#

(Jason: “That…was a series of fucking incidents right there that I had not seen coming.”
Chris: “Paul’s kind of ambitious and driven.”
Jason: “I…noticed….”
Kara: “You asked Georgia to care about something.”
Jason: “Yes. I…perhaps should not have done that….”)

#

ANSTIS’S AND TOM’S UNKNOWN LOCATION

Anstis and I come to in a gloomy, musty storage room. We’re both on our backs, chained to wooden pallets. I struggle against the restraints but they’re secured tight. I fall back with a grunt and look around.

The Nosferatu asshole is standing over us in his dirty, stinking clothes, holding two stakes wet with fresh Vitae. “Well…what do we got here?” he hisses through his tusked mouth.  “Coupla…city folk, come on down here to hunt awhile?”

“Nay, city folk we not be,” Anstis says from the next cot over, hideous wounds from the shotgun blast healing as I watch.

“Really? Well that’s just odd…cause I saw ya’ll in the city. Saw ya’ll in my city. Before ya’ll burned it down.”

“Could ye be more specific?” Anstis nods toward me. “I expect my associate here has burned down more than one city.”

The Nosferatu glares. “Talk like a pirate day ain’t for another few months, boy.” He turns to me. “And as to you, neither’s Folsom.”

I cock an eyebrow. “Folsom is everyday, son.”

“Know what else is every day? Everyday is a night to feed.” He slowly draws the tip of one stake along the line of my chin. “Ain’t never had no Brujah before…. Bet yer gonna be sweet.”

Urg. I pull my head away as far as my bonds will allow. “So why didn’t you just eat us already? Why you gotta unstake us and make us look at your face?”

“Oh, cause it’s more fun this way, don’t you see? I can’t eat what I normally would eat cause ya’ll burned it own.”

“Theres a lot of seals back there where you grabbed us.”

“Aw, I got no taste for seal. Too grubby.”

I shrug as best I can under the restraints. “A good friend of ours makes a living off of seal.”

“Oh really? And who’s that?”

“The good Emperor, Joshua Abraham Norton.”

The Nosferatu laughs, though it comes out more a giggle. “Ya’ll know Norton?”

“Aye!” Anstis agrees.

“Really? What do ya’ll know?”

(Chris: “Has Anstis figured out that he’s kinda an ironic emperor?”
Jim: “No!”
Jason: “Good, I prefer it that way.”)

I glance over at Anstis. “Uh, we know that he and Anstis have similar fashion sense”

“The best of fashion sense,” Anstis rumbles.

“Well we ain’t much for fashion down around these parts,” the Nosferatu sneers.

Anstis looks him up and down. “That much is apparent.”

The ugly grin on his ugly face drops. “Well, look who’s got some lip on him?” He puts down his stakes a picks up a cheese peeler, leaning close to hold it over Ansti’s face. “What you say we do something about that?”

(Me: “Waaaait a minute…didn’t Anstis frenzy at the aquarium?”
Jim: “Yes…?”
Me: “…Isn’t he a Gangrel?”
Jason: *pause* “…Yes, actually….”

We fall into a long discussion of the rules for how Gangrel pick up their post-frenzy animal traits, which seems to vary from edition to edition on whether or not its a permanent trait or how often it occurs.

Jim: “The way I read it was you get a permanent trait when you frenzy and something really bad happens.”
Jason: “Like destroying half the city? Guess what, you get a permanent trait.”

Now, Jim’s plan for Anstis all along has been for him to gradually pick up octopus traits and evolve into something like Davy Jones from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Jim: “So the beard will become…slightly tentacular. A little.”
Jason: “No, no, not just a little. It’s a full trait, though it’s just one. An example: Beckett is a Gangrel, and they say specifically he has the eyes of a hyena. Big, yellowish, nasty looking eyes. Helgi has fur instead of hair, though you can’t really tell under most of his gear.”
Jim: “Yeah, I guess tentacle-beard will be particularly obvious.”
Me: “Heh, he could have tentacles in other places.”
Jason: “Lets not talk about that.”
Me: “I’ve seen enough hentai….”

Yeah, they decide to go with the tentacle-beard (which, believe it or not, is still an improvement over his damn-fool beard). )

The Nosferatu pokes at Anstis’s tentacles with the cheese peeler, giggling again. “I don’t have much taste for seal, but I could go for some calamari….”

At this point, I am just about done with this asshole. With his back turned, I gather my strength and lurch against the chains, but they continue to hold.

The Nosferatu turns. “Easy there, peach, I’ll get to you soon enough.” He grins sickly at me, practically drooling.  I mutter a curse and summon my strength again, willing it stronger. My muscles bulge, straining against my leather. (“Aww yeah, I’m fucking swoll!”) I ignore his chuckles as I thrust against the squealing metal—

—The chains snap, shooting shards across the room like bullets.

The Nosferatu’s face drops. I burst off the pallet, sending more chain and chunks of wood flying. He shrieks and jumps back. “JESUS, FU—“ then BAM, he’s gone. No rustle, no ripple in the air, he’s just gone.

Chains clink behind me. I whirl. Anstis has switched to parrot-form and is carefully squeezing his way out from under his restraints. He looks uninjured, so I focus on finding the other asshole. I grab a heavy pipe-wrench from a nearby table and stalk through the room, swinging at shadows. Still no sign of the guy, but I find a door and kick my way through.

On the other side is another room even more cluttered than the one I just left. By the random items and general miasma of dust and sadness that lurks in the place, I assume it’s a pawn shop. I scan the room for any movement, but the place is quiet as a grave of broken dreams.

Anstis flutters up and lands on my shoulder. “Where’s your gun?” he squawks.

I grab at my back. “Shit!” He’s right, my shotgun is missing. I storm through the shop, looking in cases and cabinets, digging behind guitars and old stereos, but there’s no sign of it.

Tailfeathers whack my face as Anstis leans over to peer down my body. “Where’s the whip?” he squawks again.

I freeze, hand slapping my right hip where my whip normally rests. My silver-laced whip, the one originally hand-braided for me by Rob. “Mother-FUCKER!!!

Anstis flutters off my shoulder as I start ripping through the store, destroying everything I see.

#

HEARST CASTLE

Georgia wakes up staring at the ceiling of a blank stone room. She sits up and looks around. To her right is an open doorway, leading to the foyer of the Mirror Doors. She assumes, then, that she is in the room of the Future door. She looks to her left. The room is small, and empty, but for two bodies next to her. Paul and Dr. Everton, neither apparently damaged but both unconscious.

And lying between them is a silvery metal key.

A cool draft blows in from the doorway, chilling her face. She reaches up and finds her face smeared with blood, fresh blood. Hesitantly, she wipes a finger and tastes it.

It’s not blood, it’s Vitae, from both Paul and Dr. Everton.

She gasps and looks at them. They’re not dead—or at least, not more than usual—but there’s no way to tell how much blood she took from them. Just in case, Georgia bites her wrist open and feeds some of her own to Paul. His eyes slowly flutter open, locking with hers.

(We’ve lost track of exactly how many times they’ve accidentally or purposefully fed on each others blood, but by now we assume that they are both three-for-three.)

“Georgia….” he sighs.

She grips his hands. “What happened?”

“You…attacked me….”

Pain clenches her face. “Well, you were trying to rip yourself open, I couldn’t stand to see it!”

“I was trying to find your key. Did we find it?”

Georgia reaches over and picks up the key, then holds it up and smiles.

With Paul apparently safe, Georgia feeds some blood to Everton, which helps him drift back to consciousness as well. “What…happened…?” he mutters, rubbing at his chest.

“I’m sorry! I think I attacked you. Are you ok? Do you need more blood?”

“No, no my dear, I’m quite alright. It’s just a broken spine….” Everton lays on the stone another moment then hoists himself to a seat with a grunt.

“Georgia!” Paul grabs her hands again earnestly. “You said you’re from Italy, right?”

She blinks at him. “Um, yes?”

“We should go there! Tonight! See Florence, Venice, Rome…see everything together, then come back tomorrow day!”

A softness settles over her as she looks into his eyes. She’d never had much desire to go back to her homeland before, but now, to see it with Paul…. They stare at each other a moment before she pulls herself back to the present. “Perhaps. But we have to get out of the castle first.”

Paul sits up, face still earnest—then his phone rings, breaking the moment. He sighs and answers.

“Paul!” It’s Sophia, near-frantic. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you for an hour!”

He slumps back. “I have no idea, some disturbing future vision-land. I am glad you’re ok. So glad you’re ok.”

“Paul, I’m not the one whose about to not be OK. I found your Spiral Dancer, she’s on her way to you, now. I found a record of her on a speed camera. She’ll be there in, like, minutes!

Paul sits up. “Excellent.”

There’s a pause. “Paul…are you alright?”

“Yes. I feel like I’m in love. Thank you! If the Dancer is coming I need to take care of some things. I’ll try to keep you in the loop. Stay safe!”

Paul hangs up and turns to the others. “Alright, well we found the key. I think we should visit Orlando. Right now.”

#

They exit the stone rooms of the Mirror Doors and make their way back to the main castle. Georgia recalls that Orlando hosts dinner every night, and indeed they find it sitting in the dining room. It’s sitting at the head of the bone-work table, tapping its long fingers on the surface. It looks up as they enter.

(Chris: “Ok, just to be sure, I want to cast the Summons again.”
Jason: “You cant Resummon someone you already have a Summons on.”
Chris: “But that was last night. It dispels at sunrise. So she’s following me of her own interest, but I want to make sure she arrives now.”
Jason: “Well, this is a ballsy freaking move, but ok.”
Chris: *rolls* “Ok, and that is…five successes.”
Jason: “…Five successes? Five successes on the Summon of a Spiral Dancer?”
Chris: “Yes!”)

Paul bows slightly. “Gracious host! Your gift should be arriving any moment.”

Orlando’s fingers stop their tapping. “…What have you done, Mr. Stewart?” it asks, voice soft but laced with threat.

“You asked that I present the Dancer to you this evening before dinner and I am honoring your request.”

A distant impact suddenly echoes through the castle, as if something heavy collided with a wall. There’s a pause, then the sound comes again. And again.

“Oh, is that the door?” Georgia asks.

Orlando’s eyes have not left Paul’s. “Your Dancer…and how did you accomplish this wonder?”

“I am a well-positioned man….”

(Kara: “Overnight delivery.”)

“…I don’t suppose you’d believe Amazon Prime?”

Orlando stares. Its gaze tracks to Georgia, who smiles at him brightly. It then glances at Everton, backed against the wall, away from the direction of the rhythmic thumping. “Well don’t look at me,” he mutters, “I’m just here for the cocktails.”

(Me: “And a succulent Chinese meal!!!”)

Paul looks around the room, taking in the fine tapestries and pulsing upholstery. “Your dining room is quite lovely, and if I may suggest, we may wish to move to a room more appropriate for this manner of visit. I don’t want to contribute to destroying any of your fine art.”

Orlando’s eyes narrow. “I suspect, Mr. Stewart, that the werewolf is here to see you. Whats to stop me from…letting her?”

“Well…nothing but goodwill.”

A splintering crash echoes distantly through the castle, followed by a blood-chilling howl. Everton and Georgia jump, but neither Orlando or Paul breaks their gaze on one another.

Finally, Orlando rises slowly to his feet. “Mr. Stewart. Ms. Johnson. Doctor. Will you excuse me a moment? I must attend to something.” It walks out of the room without waiting for a response. The doors close behind him.

(Chris: “I am going to count to ten, then dispel the Summons!”)

Everton steps forward and grips Paul’s arm. “I would like to be very clear, Mr. Stewart. When you refer to a ‘Dancer,’ you are in fact referring to a Black Spiral Dancer?

“That’s correct. A werewolf, or weredingo or something—“

“You encountered a Black Spiral Dancer and survived its presence long enough to be able to Summon it in the future. And you have done so. In full cognizance that this tells it where you are.”

“Yes.”

“And you had done so upon entering this room?”

“Yes.”

Everton glances at the doors. “Then might I perhaps suggest that we choose another room to be in?”

Paul claps once. “That’s a fantastic idea!”

(Jim: “Is this in the top 3 worst things that he’s summoned?”
Jason: “No…wait…yes. Probably yes.”
Me: “Well he summoned Perpenna…and Heinrich Himmler….”
Chris: “Would you believe I really enjoy off-label uses of Presence?”
Jason: “I’ve noticed.”
Jim: “Did he summon the Mokole?”
Chris: “Not yet….”)

They hurry out the opposite side of the dining room and make their way through the winding hallways of the castle. Strange noises echo through the corridors, seemingly coming from many directions at once. Georgia pulls out her map and leads them to the best safe-spot she can find, the library, though she starts to doubt the wisdom of this plan when Paul and Everton immediately forget their imminent peril and  start waxing rhapsodic over the illuminated beauty of the flesh-bound books.

“Georgia, look at this!” Paul turns to her with a heavy grimoire in hand. “Look at the stitching, and this gold leaf! Look at how precise it is!”

Georgia, instead, peers at the title, Ars Goetia. “That’s a demonology book,” she gasps.

Everton stares thoughtfully at it too, then looks up at Paul and smiles. “Heidelberg Press. Late 16th century, I warrant.”

A soul-chilling howl echoes through the castle, bringing their attention back to the issue at hand.

“So, Paul,” Georgia asks carefully, “Just a question about your arrangement with Orlando…did it think the Spiral Dancer was going to be arriving deceased?”

“Oh no, I guaranteed a live delivery. I feel kind of weird about that, but she wanted to kill Sophia, and frankly it seemed like a two-birds-with-one-stone situation…” Paul slowly droops, (perhaps realizing that getting a werewolf to kill his enemies for him makes him no better than me), “…Though I feel a little guilty about that now.”

Another howl rips through the castle, passing through stone as if it wasn’t there. Paul stares sadly at the door. He still doesn’t really understand what these Spiral Dancers are, but they are living things; which, frankly, probably makes them better than us. “…I feel like we should help the Dancer.”

The silence following this statement is as deafening as the howl that preceded it. “Are you out of your mind?” Everton says. “Do you have the first conception of what a Spiral Dancer is? If a werewolf is an unreasonable person who tries to kill us using as many methods as they can, a Spiral Dancer is an unreasonable person who tries to kill us not because of what we represent, but because we are competition. It is incurably mad and wishes to destroy the world.”

Georgia and Paul consider this. “Do other werewolves hate it?” Georgia asks.

“More than they hate us, and thats saying quite a bit. There’s nothing one hates more than ones-self reflected. Spiral Dancers are a broken reflection of their own kind.” Everton tilts his cane at Paul. “And if that Spiral Dancer has become enraged at you then it will kill you in a very violent display of its capabilities.”

There’s another long moment of silence. “…I feel a little better now,” Paul says finally.

“In the meanwhile, we should put our minds toward the question of where to begin the search for the third key.”

Georgia digs in her bags. “I have two maps. One is a map of the castle. The other is this….” Georgia produces a note with a drawing of a series of circles linked together in a crystalline pattern. Underneath the drawing, in elegant script, are words:

Progress can only be made when Severity is attached to Beauty, Foundation with Eternity, and Kingship with its Crown.

Everton takes the note. “Where did you get this? Do you know what this is?”

“Um, a map?”

“No. Or at least, not in the sense you mean it.” He traces the lines. “These are the Sephirot, the Jewish Tree of Life. The Sephirot are ten aspects of God, in a sense, attached to one another in a particular format. It has metaphysical implications. You said it was a map, you are partially correct. It is a map of God, not of rooms.”

They peer at the note. “They’re not all connected to each other directly,” Paul muses.

“No, and there’s a weird node at the bottom that isn’t a node….”

Everton taps the one Georgia pointed out. “I suggest that we search for something or someone of someplace that may represent such a thing.”

They turn to the fleshmap of the castle. The layout of the castle, unfortunately, doesn’t match any of the orderly lines of the Sephirot, but there is something on the grounds that seems to be set apart from the rest of the structures. The gardens.

But between them and the gardens is a castle filled with angry Voivode and even angrier werewolf.

“Hold on,” Paul says, and pulls out his phone to call Sophia.

She answers before the first ring even goes through. “Paul? What’s going on?”

“Sophia! Good news! The Dancer arrived as scheduled! Fantastic prediction there!”

“…How is that good news!?

“Well, you haven’t met our host. In any case, can you tell if the Dancer is still…alive?”

“Paul, I only saw it cause it was on a highway camera. Hearst Castle isn’t wired, I can’t do a lot down there.”

“Ok, I knew it was a long shot, but you work miracles, so I thought I’d ask.”

Georgia—perhaps realizing that Paul is talking to another woman—suddenly chimes in. “I work miracles too!” she says earnestly.

Paul holds the phone to his chest. “Of course sweetie, I know,” he soothes.

“…Paul?” Sophia’s voice drifts from the phone. “Who’s that?”

He brings it back to his ear. “Just another person. Things are weird.”

Georgia gasps at “Just Another Person,” but Paul doesn’t notice. “In any event, I just wanted to let you know we were successful.”

There’s a long pause, perhaps as Sophia ponders whether Paul understands the meaning of the word. “Just…be careful, Paul,” she says finally.

Paul agrees and hangs up. His pleased expression drops as he sees Georgia’s face.

“Why didn’t you tell her you were with me?” she asks, hands on her hips. “Is there something between you?”

“No…I did tell her you were here with me.”

“Not by name.”

“She doesn’t know your name.”

“I helped save her when she was filled with silver!”

“You did, and I mentioned that, but she still doesn’t know you. We should introduce you!”

Georgia scoffs and storms to the other side of the library. Paul ducks around Everton’s bemused form and hurries after. “Wait, are you upset with me? There’s no reason to be upset with me!”

(Jason: “I don’t know who I’m more sorry for, you or Everton.”
Jim: “Everton. Everton.
Chris: “I was hoping to avoid this, but no, everytime I go unconscious, she’s dripping blood in my mouth!”)

Everton clears his throat loudly. “Not to interrupt, but there is a angry werewolf trying to kill you.”

Paul and Georgia settle their lover’s quarrel and they’re able to move on with their unlives. Georgia pulls out the fleshmap and starts them on a roundabout route that will keep them hidden on their way to the gardens. Howls and bangs echo through the castle, but fortunately they’re able to cross the grounds without incident, arriving at the location indicated on the map to find….

“A hedge maze!” Georgia says brightly, peering up at the tall manicured shrubs.

Paul stares too, though his expression is grim. “So, as awesome as I think hedge mazes usually are, I think we should probably avoid it here.”

“I’m not entirely certain we have a choice….” Everton adds darkly.

Another howl, followed by a rending shriek, draws their attention back to the castle. “Well, perhaps at least it will hide us?” Georgia suggests. “Can the werewolf navigate a hedge maze as well as we can?”

“Perhaps not, but she can rip right through it,” Everton says.

“Could we do the same?”

“Potentially, but do you wish to attack the hedges in a Tzmiscian Warlord’s hedge maze?”

They turn back toward the maze. It’s dark and suspiciously tranquil, the only sound coming from it the slight rustling of branches in the wind.

But, they realize, there is no wind….

Paul lifts Georgia onto his shoulders to try and see over the top, but the hedges are at least twelve feet high and actively shake off any attempts to climb them. They fall back to regroup, staring at the gaping black hole of the entrance, when Paul suddenly comes up with a new plan.

(Chris: “I have a panorama-generating app.”
Jason: “…What?”
Chris: “An app that generates panoramas on my phone. With the camera.”
Jason: “How is that useful?”
Chris: “I will toss the phone up and spin it and get a picture while its up in the air.”
Jason: “That’s…okay, then, roll…Dex plus Technology. Another combination no one uses. I’m still taking submissions for the weirdest stat-skill combo action ever, by the way. I don’t think we’ve beaten Appearance plus Firearms.”
Chris: “I roll Appearance plus Science to blind them with science!”
Jason: “Stamina-Occult has been suggested but I can think of a number of actions that would work for that.”
Jim: “Perception plus…Performance?”
Jason: “Oh that’s easy. ‘Am I fucking up? Am I fucking up? Am I on key? Did I remember the line right?’”
Me: “And if you botch, you’re super high, and you think you’re doing amaaazing!
Chris: “Empathy plus Finance.”
Jason: “Hmm…’Down with Capitalism?’ No, wait, Compassionate Capitalism.”
Jim: “Dexterity-Finance!”
Everyone: “Ooooo!”
Me: “Maybe it’s like you’re doing one of those shell-games?”
Jason: “No, that’s not really Finance. That’s just raw Dex. Hmm.”
Jim: “I got one, some sort of stock market thing where you need to react immediately to something.”
Jason: “Oh, like, daytrading on six computers at once!”
Chris: “Humanity plus Larceny! Minus Drive!”
Me: “Strength plus Politics!”
Kara: “Snakes plus Snakes!”)

Anyway, Paul activates the app on his phone and spins it up into the air, above the top level of the hedges, and catches it a few moments later. They all lean in to look at the screen. The compiled image is jagged, and fish-eye distorted, but they can see that at the center of the maze is a large open area, darker than anything around it. Pitch-black, even.

Paul points it out. “Yeah, so that looks impossibly dark, and I’m going to interpret that as bad.”

“Mr. Stewart, we are being hunted by  creature beyond sight, sense, and reason, that can track us  through anything and kill largely anything it runs into. An area of sublime darkness in which nothing can be disturbed may be of primary use.”

Another howl rips through the castle, slightly closer this time. Everton’s grip on his cane tightens. “I doubt severely that anything we may discover in there is going to be any worse than what will discover us in the next few moments.”

Paul and Georgia hesitantly agree, and with that, they enter the darkness of the maze.

#

THE VICINITY OF SAN SIMEON

I tear the everloving fuck out of the entire pawn shop in search of my whip, but there’s no sign. Every fruitless cabinet just incites my rage further and soon I’m cursing and smashing things just for the hell of it. Anstis, meanwhile, still in parrot-form, is carefully gathering together any bit of cheap, shiny gold he can find in the rubble and carrying it in his beak to a growing pile in the middle of the floor.

Suddenly lights lance through the shop and there’s a sound of a car pulling up out front. I peer through the grimy windows and see the barest shape of a figure moving. My first thought is this is the redneck asshole come back to protect his shop. I grab a baseball bat and wrench the front door open.

And find myself faced with four armed men, all aiming at me.

Shit!!” I dive out of way just before they open fire. Bullets tear through the shop, shattering anything I had left intact. Behind me, Anstis squawks and flutters for cover. I duck beside the door, clutching my bat, deciding whether I should make a break for it, when suddenly a voice shouts above the noise.

“Cease fire! Cease fire!” The shooting stops. I tense in the silence, preparing for a direct attack, then the voice continues. “…Lytton? Is that you?”

I blink. The voice doesn’t seem immediately familiar, nor did any of the gunmen. I take a risk and quickly duck my head past the doorframe.

The four men still have their guns drawn, but aimed down. From around the far side of the car comes another man, dark-skinned in an expensive suit and groomed beard.

William Liedesdorff, Archbishop of San Jose.

“Mr. Liedesdorff!” I climb back to my feet, still keeping an eye on the gunmen. “What are you doing down here, sir?”

He shoves through the gunmen to face me directly. “This is my fucking domain, what the hell are you doing down here?”

I look up and down the street. There’s a scattering of houses and a few small businesses, but no distinguishing features. “…Where are we?”

“South of Monterey,” Liedesdorff says.

“Are we anywhere near San Simeon? That’s where we were—“

“Why?” He throws up his hands. “What were you doing in San Simeon? What the hell is everyone doing in San Simeon nowadays!?”

“We’re trying to talk to this Orlando guy but we keep getting waylaid by assholes—“

“For Christ’s sake, what is wrong with you people? Why are you bothering Orlando?”

That’s a really good question. “I’m not bothering him, but everyone else seems to think his place is the place to be so now we gotta go rescue them.”

“Then what in the hell are you doing here? And what the fuck happened in Monterey?”

“Yeah, that’s a long story, but we landed in San Simeon to head to the castle and some Nosferatu asshole grabbed us and knocked us out and we woke up here—“

“Nosferatu?” Liedesdorff interrupts with a frown.

“Yeah, more ugly than usual.”

“That’s saying something.” Liedesdorff sighs. “There aren’t supposed to be any Nosferatu down here, but then what do I know about what’s going on around here anymore…did he have anything to do with what went down at the aquarium?

I tense and glance at the gunmen. “Maaaybe? I…kinda blacked out, so—“

Liedesdorff glares. His men sense the sudden shift in tension and adjust their guns. “What did you do?” he asks.

“I…honestly don’t know, sir. At least…not the details.”

Understanding slowly dawns. “Oh…fuck!” He starts pacing the street in front of the shop, cursing more.

I watch him a few moments. It’s strangely comforting to know that the Sabbat don’t have any better control over the local situation than the Camarilla. “If it helps, Boss says he’ll handle it.”

Liedesdorff whirls on me. “Do you have the first idea how that Boss of yours tends to handle things?”

The memory of our conversation on the ship sends a cold thrill through me. “He…gave me an impression.”

“Yes, well, it was a correct one. Do you know how much shit I have crawling up my ass this instant because of what you did? I just finished piecing this domain together, and now you’ve got the National Guard and the goddamned Army invading me!”

I frown. So the Sabbat’s reach stretches to the Central Coast, that’s interesting…. “Was…Stanley working for you?”

Liedesdorff snorts. “Working for me is the wrong word. I tolerated his presence in exchange for a cut. Is he alive?”

“Probably not, but…did you know that he had a wereshark with him?”

Some of the angry frustration drains out of him. He stares at me with a look bordering on shock. “…No. Did he? Does he still?”

Scenes from the burning aquarium carnage flash through my mind. “…Probably not.”

Liedesdorff’s eyes narrow. “I’m hearing a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘probablies’!”

“Hey!” I level a finger at him, ignoring the glares of the gunmen. “I got shot in the face, and the next thing I know I’m waking up next to an overturned cop car covered in blood!”

He stabs a finger at the sky. “And I am literally seeing demons flying through the air over the building right now! Deal with it!”

“Am I going to get lectured again? Cause I already got the rundown,” I sneer.

“I can’t lecture you. You’re with Sertorius. You know what he’ll do to me?” He hesitates. “Wait, did Sertorius tell you to go down there?”

“Yes. (“—Wait, did he? I don’t—“)…Yes….” I frown, trying to remember, but decide to roll with it.

“So Sertorius told you go to San Simeon. Which means if I get in the way of you going to San Simeon, Sertorius is going to know that I stopped you from doing what he told you to do. Which means, in turn, that Sertorius will come visit me and be very unhappy.”

“Yeah. Nobody likes that.”

Liedesdorff’s posture slowly starts to relax. “No. No I don’t much like that. I know what happens to people that this guy doesn’t like. So. What do you need from me?”

I glance at the men, still watching me owlishly. “A ride and a couple guns would be good. Sir. Please.”

Liedesdorff jerks his head at one of his guys. “Give the man a gun.” The man grumbles but unslings his gun and hands it over, an AK-47. “You’re sure about going to Orlando’s?” Liedesdorff asks.

I examine the rifle and shrug. “That seems to be where the party’s at, yes, though I also gotta find this asshole that took my shit,” I raise my voice and look around, “Cause I know he’s around here somewhere!”

“It’s a hell of a mess down there,” Liedesdorff continues. “Something strange is going on. I had some men coming up from LA along 101 when something took their car out, tore it into pieces. One of them survived, barely, said that it was a werewolf, making its way south screaming bloody murder, and the name on its lips was Paul Stewart.”

I stop toying with the gun. That doesn’t sound like Sophia, but who knows if something even stranger is going on…. “There’s…a slight chance I know her too. It. Whatever.”

Liedesdorff looks at me strangely. “How so?”

I turn back to the gun. “Oh, I have some werewolf connections,” I say nonchalantly.

“I thought you killed werewolves?”

“Yeah,” I say flatly, slinging the strap over my shoulder. Liedesdorff and his men stare at me, waiting for me to continue, but I just look at them calmly and force myself to keep a straight face.

(Chris: “God, I’m going to have the weirdest call with Liedesdorff later.”
Me: “This is why you wouldn’t give me Liedesdoff’s phone number, isn’t it?”
Chris: “Yep!”)

Liedesdorff stares at me a long moment, slowly shaking his head. “Stewart keeps odd company, doesn’t he?

I spread my arms and grin. “Mother fucking San Francisco!”

“Yes, it is.” He jerks his chin. “Get in the car.”

END OF NIGHT

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