Kara: “Oh, can I phone a friend?”
Kara: “My ranger from my other campaign.”
Kara: “But she can track!”
Me: “If you’re calling Lanara, I’m calling Scarlet and asking if I can borrow her sword.”
I raise a placating hand, trying to keep it from shaking. “Boss,” I say seriously, “I know what this looks like, and I know what you’re thinking, but I swear…I did not quote Gladiator when I walked out here.”
Marcus stares at me. His armor is viciously dark, like holes cut out of the universe, but even without reflected light I can tell that its formed like traditional Roman armor. Instead of a horsehair crest, though, he is plumed and caped in undulating shadow.
He raises his gladius at me. “Nine out of ten Lasombra, Tom,” he reminds me through gritted teeth. “Nine out of ten….”
Movement stirs the shadows around him and suddenly Aquilifer steps into view. She too is armored in solid shadow, though more sparingly than her master; her torso is girded in plate, and a small helmet encloses her head like a falconer’s hood. Unlike a hood, though, the eyeholes are open, leaving her free to glare at her surroundings.
And right now, 100% of her glare is directed at Max.
Orlando’s voice suddenly undulates through the arena, drawing all attention back to it. “Marcus Sertorius Posthumus. Priscus Sabbatorum,” it hisses. “Why have you come to violate my home and hearth?”
(Chris: “Does Paul have the ability to move his legs at all?”
Jason: “Move them? Yes, but not really walk yet.”
Chris: “Paul closes his eyes and taps his heels together three times.”
Jason: “Paul awakens in Oz.”
Me: “You mean Oz the tv-show right?”)
Marcus shoots me another glare. His irritation with me is clear, but when he looks at Orlando his demeanor shifts noticeably—or, noticeably to me at least. He’s nervous. “Dominum,” Marcus states, pouring as much dignitas as he can into a nine-year-old’s voice, “My formal apologies for violating your home. I come in a manner of pressing urgency. Not to lay claim to your domain, of course.”
“Then to what to I owe the pleasure of this visit?” By his tone, though, it is clearly not a pleasure.
Marcus glares at us again. “My clients would appear to have overstayed the bounds of your patience and my instruction. I have come to collect them and escort them from your premises.”
Orlando stands. Its skin pulses sickly, as if unseen shapes were shifting beneath it. “I do not recall sending you an invitation for this purpose, or any other.”
“Well, that is most regrettable.” He sweeps the gladius in a bow. “I apologize rather profusely, but I did rather assume that you failing to invite me to games in which my clients were to be sacrificed was something of a regrettable oversight, given your deep and abiding reputation for hospitality and graciousness.”
“He didn’t like my gift-basket, Boss,” I mutter.
Marcus tenses. “Tom. Shut up.”
“It is so hard to find good help these days,” Orlando chides. “The young ones, so rash. Uncaring of the old traditions.”
Marcus sighs. “Quite so.”
Paul leans carefully over to Everton. “It may be time to leave,” he whispers.
“I am open to suggestions as to how,” Everton replies, barely moving his lips.
“Can you walk?”
“Can you carry me?”
Everton glances around the crowd. “Not particularly surreptitiously….”
“I think there may be enough of a distraction soon to make it possible.”
Everton nods lightly at Orlando. “This man can produce twelve eyes at will. I’m not certain I want to count on that.”
“Well I don’t think things are going to improve from here….”
“Still,” Orlando is saying, “This is my domain, Sertorious. It is unseemly for neonates to barge in without presenting themselves ahead of time.”
“I agree,” Marcus glares at us again, “But neonates do not always appreciate the consequences of their actions. And we are a very long way from the old country here, Orlando, other rules here predominate.”
Orlando waves a long hand. “That is not my affair. Do you accept responsibility, then, for your…clients?”
Marcus mutters to himself a moment. From where I’m standing, it sounds like Latin. “Of course I do. For my clients’ actions, that is.” Marcus suddenly smiles, cagily. “But of course none of this would have come about had you not decided to intervene, Dominum.”
Orlando frowns. “I have done no such thing!”
“Oh, my apologies! The Tremere must have penetrated your wards herself! My condolences, Dominum, on the shoddy work you have been made to put up with.” He turns to Georgia. “How did you manage to breach such great and magical protections such as these?”
She blinks. “Luck…?”
Marcus turns back to Orlando. “…And Tremere trade secrets, no doubt. Do not worry, Dominum, I shall ask the finest thaumaturgists of the Sabbat Inquisition to call upon you at your convenience.”
Orlando tenses. The chittering starts to rise across the arena again. “Do not misconduct yourself on my domain, Priscus,” it spits. “The Tremere is not yours and we have a shared history. I have no obligation to explain my whims in bringing her here to you.”
“Of course not, but she is contracted to me.”
Orlando chuckles. “Since when do you contract with the Camarilla, Sertorius? Did I not hear you denounce their lot in Milan, all those years ago? Why the change of heart?”
“You are not the only one who has no obligation to explain their whims, Orlando,” Marcus says, shadows twisting around him.
The noise of the crowd grows higher until Orlando cuts it off with one raised finger. “Produce the bond then, and she is yours.”
Marcus looks at Georgia thoughtfully, then hesitates….
(Kara: “Does…Georgia know what Orlando is talking about?”
Jason: “It means it’s looking for proof that you are his client, which of course Marcus does not have because, actually, in point of fact, you are not his client.”
Kara: “Hmm. Okay, hold on, let me check my inventory—“
Jason: “Oh, god—“)
Georgia digs out and holds up the key to the Tremere sarcophagus, the one Marcus was imprisoned in, first in the Chantry dungeons, and then in Claude’s underground lair. “In point of fact, I have rescued Marcus, multiple times, and am contracted to protect him from traitors amongst my own clan,” she announces, and isn’t able to stop herself from glancing at Max.
Max is staring at the key, confused. He silently mouths, “Where did you get that?”
“The basement!” Georgia mouths back.
Max turns paler than usual. Georgia waves cheerfully.
Marcus, meanwhile, shudders slightly at the idea of being beholden to a Tremere, but continues. “Moreover, Orlando, surely you would not question the word of a Priscus?”
“Of course not, but I would know what boon you offer me in return for this most inappropriate violation of my domain?”
“Well I would not dream of usurping such a choice from you, Orlando. What is it you demand?” His voice is still boredly-arrogant, but the shadows around him twist faster.
Orlando smiles slowly. “I demand nothing, but I do request a consideration. Perhaps that ghoul next to you….” It gestures at Aquilifer with one long finger.
“No!” Marcus barks suddenly, composure gone. Aquilifer keens nervously and sidles closer to her master.
Orlando’s grin widens. “Such a proper little Roman you are….”
The arena suddenly drops deeper into darkness as the torches wither down to near-embers. “Do not press me, Orlando, this can go as badly as you wish,” Marcus growls, young voice laden with malice.
Orlando stares down at us, an incongruiously-elegant statue surrounded by its own heaving, mutated creations. Finally, after an endless, airless moment, it sits back down. “Very well then. A boon. To be redeemed at my pleasure. A service rendered in exchange for my forbearance.”
Marcus looks at Georgia and me. I shift nervously. Georgia smiles and shrugs. “Very well….” Marcus grumbles.
“I can have a signed pledge drawn up, but…that would be a slur on your sense of honoritas, wouldn’t it, Master Sertorius?”
“I leave it to you to decide the details, Orlando,” Marcus says. He bows stiffly, but he doesn’t put his sword away.
“No need, that. We shall rely on your famously unshakably sense of propriety.” Orlando gestures grandly. “It is done. Let us celebrate. Shall we dine?”
I glance nervously at Marcus, remembering the opening ceremonies of the Monomancy. Fortunately, he speaks up. “With regrets, Orlando, I must decline. I and my clients have business elsewhere.”
“A pity. But then, I do have a need to repair a great deal of property damage.” It stands again, gathering its robes. “Until we next meet, Sertorius. My servants will show you the door.”
Orlando nods at Paul, Everton, and Anstis seated next to him, then exits the arena, silk sweeping behind it. The creatures in the stands follow. The armored ghouls lining the floor of the arena also start to file out of the portcullised entryways. We wait quietly, processing our unexpected good luck, unwilling to draw too much attention back to us just yet. Max, though, is obviously the most nervous of all, wringing his hands and glaring around, as if trying to watch everything in the arena at once.
But Max doesn’t seem to notice me staring thoughtfully at him. “Heeeeey, Boss….” I say softly.
Marcus turns to me, shadows swirling around him. “What is it, Tom?”
His voice still has an edge, and my instinct is to stfu up again, but I take a calming breath and continue. “I know there’s a lot of shit going on right now, and I totally respect that, but in case things get crazy again—or, rather, before they do—I just wanted to say….” I raise my arm and level a finger at Max. “…That Max is the one who did all that shit to Aquilifer.”
(Jason: “…I was pretty sure there was nothing you could say that would distract Marcus right now, but apparently I was wrong.”
Me: “Oh, I have been looking forward to this moment for months. Real-time months!”)
Marcus freezes. Even the shadows around him still. Then, slowly, he turns to face Georgia, and Max right behind her. Georgia looks between them then nods matter-of-factly at Marcus.
Max stares between Marcus and my outstretched hand, his complexion even paler than before. He takes a step back and opens his mouth, obviously to shout some sort of spell—
—But we never hear what it is, because a millisecond later, he explodes in front of our eyes. Vitae and viscera fountain across the arena and a blood mist soaks the sand.
Georgia and I stare in shock, and for once, her level of shock is highest of all of us.
(Kara: “…There’s…nothing left?”
Jason: “Well, there’s body parts, but they’re all pretty small chunks.”
Kara: “But…I was going to eat him!”
Me: “Oh…I’m sorry Kara. :(”
Kara: “…Augh. That’s ok, there’ll be more people to eat in the future.”)
Marcus, meanwhile, is glaring evenly at the place where Max used to stand. He seems not to have moved, but bloody footprints lead from the carnage back to his feet, only partially obscured by the shadows lapping around him, and gore drips down the length of the gladius.
Behind him, Aquilifer chirrups once and rouses her feathers. I still can’t speak eagle, but her meaning is clear: “Fuck that guy.”
Moments before this happens, as Orlando is leaving the arena, Paul turns to Everton. “Doctor, I think we should get the werewolf cub and be on our way.”
Everton nods. “I would regard that as a wise decision.”
“Can you help me move?”
Just then, Max explodes in front of them.
Everton turns to Paul. “Apologies,” he mutters, then grabs Paul by the collar and Celerities out the nearest arena gate.
(Chris: “Paul, meanwhile, is facepalming. He has never stopped facepalming. He is facepalming always.”)
Georgia turns to Marcus. He returns the gaze, blood-spattered face unreadable. It’s suddenly occurred to her that she was sent to investigate the San Francisco Chantry, and now, barely a month or so later, she is now essentially the Primogen of it. She takes a breath. “Well…one down, several hundred to go.” She looks at her wrist. “I wonder if this bracelet still works….”
Everton and Paul finally slow when they reach an area of the castle free of hellish monstrosities and exploding vampires, for the moment. They decide to look for the cub, but having never even seen the cub, neither knows where to start. Paul Summons Georgia to help them get started.
Georgia suddenly looks up and looks toward the nearby walls of the castle. “Well, gotta go!” she announces brightly and runs off.
Marcus and I stare at her till she disappears into one of the tunnels. Marcus turns to me. “This had better be worth it,” he growls. “Rescuing the Tremere.”
I shrug. “Well she and Paul have gotten to be pretty good butt-buddies over the last few nights, so—“
“That’s all well and good, but do you have the first idea of what I have pledged? Do you know what a boon to that will consist of?”
“Um…a bigger gift basket?”
Marcus wipes the gore off his blade. “This is not a laughing matter.”
“Few things are, these days,” I grumble.
Anstis, meanwhile, is still sprawled in the stands, now largely empty of Orlando’s ghouls. He grins down at me as I glare up at him, but the moment Marcus looks up at him the grin disappears.
“Enjoying yourself, Captain?” Marcus calls up to him.
“’Tis a fine show,” Anstis replies, shifting his legs on the seats.
Marcus rolls his eyes, then suddenly turns thoughtful. “Yes…it was….” He turns to look toward the castle. “Why was Everton here?”
I gesture vacantly with the halberd. “I don’t know, to view the tapestries?”
Unfortunately, no one is left in the arena who would get my joke. Marcus turns back to me, his shadows twisting again. “I don’t like this. Find them, get them the hell out of here now, before Orlando changes his mind and summons the vozdt.”
Georgia reaches Paul and Georgia in the dungeons, in front of the door with the three locks, the one that was supposed to lead to the cub but only lead to Orlando.
“Georgia,” Everton says as she enters, still staring at the door. “We are hoping you might have some insight on where to find the cub. This seems the most logical place to start looking. The wards are down, the locks are breached, and I do not know how long our host’s forbearance shall last.”
She tilts her head. “Well, it did swear to me that I could have the cub upon leaving.”
Everton scoffs. “Yes, well, I may have less faith in the goodness of Voivodes than you. He might swear that you can have the cub by sewing it to your back.”
“Hmm. Well, by the rules of hospitality that doesn’t seem proper….”
“You’ll forgive me, but they are more like guidelines….” Everton turns back to the door. “Anyway, you are the best placed to find the cub, as you are the only one to have even seen it.”
Georgia tilts her head. “Well…he likes cheese.”
Everton snorts, but then turns thoughtful. “Orlando employs ghouls, so he must have the facilities to feed them, and the cub is mortal too….” He raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps we should check the pantries.”
Using Georgia’s map, the three of them find their way to the kitchens. They’re deserted at the moment, and thankfully look like kitchens one might find in a large baroque dwelling like Hearst Castle—no blood stains and meat hooks around, for once—but something still seems off. It doesn’t look like there’s been a fight, but something has come through here. Pots and pans lie disheveled across the counters and floor, and some of the shelves look like they’ve been dug through.
(Kara: “Oh, can I phone a friend?”
Kara: “My ranger from my other campaign.”
Kara: “But she can track!”
Me: “If you’re calling Lanara, I’m calling Scarlet and asking if I can borrow her sword.”)
Paul, who is just able to stumble along on his own now, peers at the pans on the floor. They’re dusted with a fine white powder, which he tentatively tastes. It’s sugar, and as he looks, he finds a thin trail of it leading from the room. They follow it out of the kitchen, through hallways of the castle lined with knocked-over furniture, as if something came through here in a hurry. The trail leads to a door at the heart of the castle. They enter cautiously.
They find a large room, more like a hall, lined with suits of armor, each of which have a faintly-bloodstained sheen of authenticity to them. At the end of the hall is a throne, but strangely it seems to be made of carved wood, rather than bone or flesh (Me: “Or swords!”).
And crouched half-hidden behind the throne, eyes wide, muzzle dusted with sugar, is the werewolf cub.
“Puppy!” Georgia crouches and holds a hand out. “We’re here to get you out of the creepy castle! Do you want to get out?”
“Is that the cub?” Everton asks softly, his grip on his cane suddenly very tight.
The cub stares at them but takes a cautious step toward Georgia, still gripping the legs of the chair in its tiny werewolf forearms. She moves toward it slowly, making soothing noises.
“That’s far enough,” a voice suddenly shouts. An instant later, a new form appears in the space: Sophia, legs braced and clutching a war-axe, standing between Georgia and the cub.
“Whoa!” Georgia steps back. “Did you miss the part where I said I was here to rescue it?”
“Did you miss the part where you’re a blood mage? Back off! The cub isn’t going with you….”
Georgia holds up her hands. “Look my intention was to get it out of the castle. If you have a better place to take it, that’s fine.”
Sophia gestures threateningly with the axe. “What were you going to do with it after you got it out of the castle?”
Georgia trades a look with Paul. “I…hadn’t gotten that far yet.”
Sophia glares at her, but relaxes a bit at the sight of Paul. “How much do you know about this cub?”
Paul steps—or well, lurches—forward. “I know that Perp—the Shadow Monster wanted it, but I’m not sure if he wanted it alive or dead.”
Georgia, though, has a little more information available to her than Paul does: what she learned from eating Himmler. According to his memories, he did not know what the cub was, but knew it was of great importance to a lot of people. A lot of people asking about it without asking about it, ifyouknowwhatImean. The cub was on the island in particular because Perpenna asked him to store it for awhile.
Georgia shares this info with the group. Sophia stares at her. “You brought the cub off the island?” Paul nods in confirmation. “Why did you bring it here?”
“I was kidnapped. I was attempting to teleport somewhere else and the Voivode brought me here against my will and brought the wolf with me.”
Sophia’s axe lowers very slightly. “Does…it…know what this is?” Georgia shrugs, so Sophia turns to Paul. “What about…your boss?”
“I don’t think he knows it exists,” Paul says seriously.
“How long can you continue that?”
Paul shrugs. “Apart from Orlando, the only people who know about the existence of this cub are either dead or in this room.”
Sophia’s eyes narrow. “Is Perpenna in this room?”
“I always assume he is,” Georgia says brightly.
Sophia shudders. “Well, let’s assume you’re wrong.” She takes a deep breath, but her face remains cautious. “What do you suggest we do with it?”
“I’d suggest take it out of California,” Georgia says.
“It’s not that simple. I can’t just pop somewhere else, somewhere that far.” Sophia scowls. “We’re not like you. I need to get the cub to a cairn, and the local one has been destroyed.”
Georgia considers this a moment. “How about I teleport you to a town near a cairn, then, and drop you off?”
The axe lowers all the way to the floor. “You’d do that?”
“Well, I fought a bunch of Nazis to rescue this thing so I might as well finish the job—” Georgia stops suddenly. Something is moving around the edges of the room, slowly, under a cloak of Obfuscation. She squints at it, eventually picking out a familiar bulky shape, carrying a cane.
It’s Everton, and he’s making his way toward the werewolf cub.
Georgia frowns, but no one else seems to see him, so she decides to wait to see what he does. “…Um, anyway, I can try.”
“What happens if you try and you fail?” Sophia asks.
“We…wind up in a Voivode’s castle?”
Sophia stares at her, then sighs. She sets down the axe and pulls out her tablet. “Tahoe. Try to get me to Tahoe. Emerald Bay. There’s a large cairn there, they’ll know what to do with—“
Suddenly Everton drops his Obfuscate and dashes forward, grabbing the cub. The cub squeals and Sophia whirls around. Everton holds the cub in one hand and his cane tilted toward Sophia in the other. “A moment, madam, a moment….”
Sophia growls a very inhuman growl and reaches for the axe, but Georgia steps forward first. “Whoah, wait! What’s your plan, Doctor?”
The cub squirms against Everton’s grip but he holds fast. “My plan, my dear, I’m afraid, is to take this thing as far away from you as possible. No personal reason, you see. Perpenna has made you his target. He knows your faces, he’s met you all before, he’s chased you through two worlds. Thus, to keep this cub from him I must keep it from you.”
“Sophia hasn’t met him either,” Georgia protests.
“I’m afraid she has,” Everton says seriously.
Sophia suddenly taps at her tablet. There’s a sound like an erector set climbing a drainpipe, then two metallic spiders crawl straight out of ground, each the size of a sofa. Pattern spiders. “Put the cub down or I’ll rip you to pieces,” Sophia growls.
Georgia lifts a hand toward her. “Ok, this is escalating quickly. I think it’s clear we all want what is best for the cub—“
“Wants what’s best?” Sophia shoves the tablet back in her bag with a shaking hand and gropes for the axe. “He’s a vampire! You’re all vampires!”
“Yes, and Paul and I helped extract silver from your almost-dead body!” Georgia says.
Paul holds up his hands. “Everyone here has at least as much cause to trust one another that they can hear each other out. No reason for this to turn violent. At least, not yet.” He hesitates, glancing at the axe. “I hope….”
“I happen to have a personal means of egress for myself and anything I am carrying,” Everton says, ignoring the limp cub in his grip. “I’d need an excellent reason not to deploy it right this instant before some damn Voivode comes bursting through the door. Or worse.”
“What are you planning to do with the cub? After you’ve gotten it to safety?” Georgia asks, stressing the last word.
“I’m afraid that depends on a great many things, including whether or not this cub is precisely what I think it is.”
“And if it is….?”
Everton looks down at the cub. “If it is, then I don’t know. It may need to be killed. I don’t say these things lightly.
Georgia sighs belaboredly. “But I’ve already rescued it twice….”
“I understand, and I appreciate it, but believe me, it would be far worse to leave it in the hands of whatever it was previously in.” Everton turns to Sophia. “You’ll forgive me, but the werewolves have primarily succeeded thus far in getting themselves exterminated. And if this cub is what I think it is, I’m not taking any chances.”
Sophia clutches her axe tighter, arms trembling, but Paul and Georgia are slowly starting to relax. Everton has gotten them out of bad situations many times before and though he tends to be secretive, he hasn’t given them a reason not to trust him.
(Well, except for that whole murdering a bunch of the city’s Primogens thing at the start of this whole mess, everyone seems to have forgotten about that. But. Whatevs.)
Sophia sees the acceptance on their faces and hefts the axe higher. “I am not letting him leave with that cub!” she shouts. “Do you know what would happen if I let a vampire walk off with—“ She cuts herself off, momentarily flustered.
“Even if Everton can hide the cub?” Georgia asks her.
“I don’t know who this guy is! How do I know he’s not making you trust him!? You people can do that!”
Georgia sighs, then something occurs to her. “…Doctor,” she asks carefully, “Can you take Sophia with you too? Keep the cub under joint-custody till you figure things out?”
Everton eyes Sophia warily. “Have I assurances that I will be alive at the end of it?”
“Well, she has a short temper, but if she gives you her word….”
“I trust her,” Paul adds. “She’s come through for me a number of times.”
Everton considers this, then nods slowly. “You’ll allow for this, werewolf?”
Sophia glances between them, breathing heavy. “Where would we be going?”
“Well, if Perpenna is hunting us, and Everton’s trying to keep Perpenna from finding the cub, then telling us would defeat that purpose,” Georgia points out.
Everton nods. “I’m afraid it does, but to answer the question as best I can, hopefully somewhere not to be disturbed.”
Sophia finally, hesitantly agrees. Everton’s escape plan apparently involves some sort of instant-teleport trinket (Me: “Like a hearthstone!”) and to use it he needs to be in contact with everything he is bringing. Sophia tosses the axe aside and approaches him. The cub whimpers and tries to dash toward her, but Everton tucks his cane under his arm and reaches for her with his other hand. Sophia takes it, visibly suppressing a shudder.
Everton nods at Paul and Georgia. “Do endeavor not to be devoured by Perpenna. My apologies for the circumstances for this departure, but this may well make the difference between destroying Perpenna and him destroying all of us.”
Paul nods tersely. “Don’t kill each other, you’re on the same side,” he says.
Everton glances at Sophia. “For the moment,” he mutters. And with that, he and the werewolves disappear.
Paul and Georgia stand alone in the silence of the hall, then Paul turns to Georgia. “Well, I hope that ends better than it’s likely to.”
Anstis and I, meanwhile, am searching the castle aimlessly, looking for Paul and Georgia…
(Jason: “Are you going to walk in on Orlando’s sexy party?”
Me: “Oh. God. No, I really don’t want to. And mind that I am saying that, so you know how much I really don’t want to….”)
…And eventually meet up with them coming out of some long room filled with armor. Paul is looking much better (apparently having been healed up by the pattern spiders before they disappeared). I tell them we need to GTFO but Georgia says that, as guests, we need to bid Orlando goodbye first. I reluctantly agree and follow them to the dining room.
“Why are you guys here, anyway?” Paul asks as we walk.
I scowl at his tone. “Marcus sent us.”
“Why?” he snaps.
“To save your ass.”
Paul stops. “Why!? Things were going fine, then the next thing I know you two are here and things are no longer fine! I told you specifically not to come!”
“It was not my desire to enter the premises,” Anstis growls.
I glare at Anstis, recalling that the other half of this plan was cause he wanted to recruit Paul and Georgia for the Boat Job. “I was happy to stay on the boat, but he insisted, so…you’re welcome.” I shoot Paul a pistol-hand.
Georgia quietly continues walking down the hall. Paul glares at me, trembling with rage. I stare evenly back…then follow Georgia without another word. Paul storms after us, with Anstis bringing up the rear, chuckling.
We come upon Orlando sitting in its chair at the head of the bonework table. There is no meal on the table, nor ghouls lurking in the corners. Just it, alone in the room, watching us through narrowed eyes as we approach.
We bow and/or curtsy to it with varying degrees of respect. “I trust we have found everything we were looking for?” it says.
Paul steps forward, sparing one more withering glare for me. “Yes, thank you for your hospitality. Sorry for the intrusion and I’m sorry for the excitement.”
Orlando slowly traces a vein in the tabletop. “Oh, excitement is never an intrusion, and I’ve come out quite well in the deal.”
“Well, congratulations, and with your blessing I’ll be on my way.”
Orlando nods to him. “You have my blessing, Mr. Stewart. Do come by and visit, from time to time. After all, considering your previous experience, I would hate for you to think that all of our clan are inhospitable.”
Paul nods and bows again, then leaves the room, heading toward the front entrance to the castle.
Georgia starts backing away after him. “Well, this has been a…lovely vacation, thank you very much for the meals you provided, and the diversions, I…will be going with Paul….”
“Ms. Johnson….” Orlando pins her with its gaze, regarding her a long moment…then smiles. “Do take care. Not all are fond of the mage clan”
“Perhaps you have. And should you see anyone else from Bratislava, do give them my regards.”
“I will, and let us hope that we never have an encounter like Bratislava ever again. It was…dreadful for all involved, was it not?”
Orlando smiles again, but its fingers gouge long furrows into the table. “Perish the thought.”
Georgia nods then leaves hurriedly after Paul. Orlando next turns to me. I realize that I’m still draped in the antique weaponry I borrowed for the fight. “So…I’ll just leave these with you, then?” I dump them one by one onto the table.
Orlando watches me. “I hear tell you slew a Tzmitsce once.”
I freeze. Memories of Andre’s twisted from from the Monomancy flash across my mind. “Not…directly, but—“
“I hear you practiced artistry. Rather…phallic, artistry.”
Oh, Alejandro. Actually I didn’t kill him either, but I sure as hell Instagrammed the dicks I drew on his face after I beat the shit out of him. “Oh, yeah, well—“
It smiles and leans toward me, over the pile of weapons. “One day, Mr. Lytton, I shall have to show you my arts. They too are phallic.”
I lean back. “That…sounds like a fun sexy time, sir, but…maybe some other time….” I turn to go, but the mention of arts reminds me of something. Something Marcus and I discussed nights ago, about the sorts of things the Tzmitsce are able to create. Or cure…. “How…subtle are your arts, sir?”
“The subtlest of all possible.”
“So subtle you can…affect one on the cellular level?”
It smiles and spreads its hands. “The cells are crude matter. We are more than a collection of meat. Have you something in mind?”
I hesitate, wondering if its even heard of HIV. “Someone mentioned to me once that some of your clan might be able to do…very fine work.”
“I would looove, Mr Lytton, the opportunity to practice my arts. One is never finished in their work. Apotheosis awaits, even the immortals.”
Caution beats at me but hope pulls me on. “So you’re saying it is possible—“
“Anything is possible through the arts of Vicissitude. I can make you into anything you desire.”
(Jim: “I’m a shaaaaark!” )
It gestures towards a door. Red-skull appears as if summoned, staring at me vacantly. “By all means,” Orlando says, “Step into my workshop, and we shall do wonders….”
Looking into the ghoul’s broken half-face brings me back to the reality of the situation. Curing myself of my apparently-eternal disease would make my unlife easier, but it wouldn’t make up for previous mistakes, and making a deal with this creature might be an entirely new one. Even Marcus seemed afraid to be in its debt
I bow to Orlando. “Perhaps…sometime….” I say diplomatically.
Its smile fades and it nods once. “My door is always open. And you, Captain, do you wish to be improved? I can do something about that beard….”
(Me: “Oh god, please do.”)
Anstis peers into a mirror hung over the sideboard, strokes his tentacle-beard, then shrugs. “It would seem Mr. Lytton survived the evening,” he growls instead.
Orlando frowns. “It does…. What were the terms of our arrangement, was it? $100,000 or a favor?” It nods again. “Very well, Mr. Anstis, I will grant you a favor, to be redeemed at your leisure. It will be fun.”
Anstis grins and sweeps off his hat in an elaborate bow. “I thank you for your kind and generous hospitality. Your home is delightful.”
With that, he and I follow Paul and Georgia out of the hall, and out of the castle, trying not to think about the things lurking in the darkness behind us.
We reach the drive that leads from the grounds to the access road and find Marcus standing at the top of it. His armor is gone, but his mood clearly hasn’t improved.
(Chris: “I start walking down the hill.”)
“Well I suppose I should count my blessings,” Marcus grumbles at us. Paul brushes past him.
(Jason: “It’s about an hour from sunup, where are you going?
Chris: “Down the fucking hill.”)
Marcus stares. “Where is he going?”
“Looks like down the hill, Boss,” I say.
Marcus rolls his eyes and disappears in a cloud of shadow, to reappear in front of Paul halfway down the drive. They have a chat. Paul is mad he sent Anstis and I after him and Georgia, but Marcus maintains that all precautions are valid when dealing with Voivodes, and he is almost certain that—hospitality codes or not—Orlando was planning on killing us all anyway.
Paul glowers at him. “What is your plan? You spend hundreds of years moving behind the years, and now, frankly, it feels like you’re flailing.”
Marcus folds his arms and stares down the mountain. “I am flailing. You think I came here with the intention of overseeing this? Do you imagine I survived two thousand years with the amount of nonsense I’ve been putting up with recently?”
Paul throws up his arms. “No, which makes me wonder why you’re putting up with any of it! You didn’t have to come and rescue me—although, I do appreciate the thought—but why are you working with any of us? If Lytton or Anstis were employees of my company, I would have fired them weeks ago!”
Marcus glares at him. “Which is why you run a company and I have clients. I’m not overly concerned if you approve or disapprove of my methodology. It is old fashioned, but I cannot have you stalking all over the place getting into more shit. Not now. I don’t have the time.”
Marcus turns back to the view. The ranchland is dark, descending in even rolls toward the sea, but dawn is starting to lick the edges of the horizon. “I have to be here,” Marcus says, “I have to deal with Perpenna, and I am dealing with the rest of you because, like it or not, you’re the only ones here who can help. I can’t very well deal with the werewolves, Helgi has his own goals, the Camarilla has a price on my head, and the rest of the Kindred here—as I am sure you’ve grasped—are a writhing snakepit of loyalties and ambitions.”
Paul stares at him. “I can’t figure you out. You go to hell and back to stick your neck out for Tom and I—and I cant see that either of us particularly deserves it—but you also beheaded that Nosferatu six months ago for apparently picking some clumsy words.”
“She killed my clients casually, I do not like this.”
“I cant say Tom is running around with an easy touch!” Paul gestures up the drive toward the the rest of us, out of ear-shot but watching. “He doesn’t respond to instructions, he doesn’t respond to anger, he doesn’t respond to scorn—“
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He hasn’t the backing of a financial empire and a network of contacts to fall back on, even after being transformed into an undead monster.” Marcus looks away. “I know something of that position….” he mutters. “Plus he’s Brujah. If he followed orders, he wouldn’t be Brujah. He’s a loaded canon, I intend to point him at things that need to be knocked down. He will undoubtedly knock other things down along the way, and I shall have to hope that they are things I don’t mind.” He looks up, the edge returning to his voice. “So what am I to do with you, who is not a canon but something else entirely. You who not long ago was plotting the extinction of our entire species?”
“At this point I’m fairly confident that’ll happen on its own,” Paul mutters.
“It might well, but we might take the rest of humanity with us.”
Paul stares into the west, toward the receding night. “I need two weeks of peace and quiet to prepare for the solar debut.”
“That is going to complicate matters immensely. Every Kindred on the earth will take notice of this. Some are going to come with a great deal of animosity. You’re not ready to shield Tesseract from that, and neither am I.” Marcus shakes his head slowly. “I wont stop you from making it public, if you insist. But as to two weeks of peace and quiet in this area, I don’t think I can guarantee that.”
Paul continues to stare off, arms folded. “Keep Lytton away from me, that should be enough.”
“I’m afraid I cant guarantee that either, but I can see what can be done. Bear in mind, there may be a time when you need him .”
“That’s what scares me most these days,” Paul mutters.
Marcus sighs. “In any event, Paul, I have cars coming soon. I have other business to attend to, as I’m sure you all do.” He turns to look up at the rest of us, then pauses. “Where did your werewolf friend go? And where did the Doctor go, for that matter? Still sneaking around in the basement looking for his artifacts?”
Paul’s shoulders tense. “I…can’t say. Don’t think so, though, I think they left….” he says carefully.
Marcus turns to him. “Paul…what are you not telling me?”
“Nothing you want to know. Trust me, you want to know less about the werewolves than you do already.”
“Paul, no one on this continent knows more about the werewolves than I do, I assure you of that, and despite what I might look like, I am not in fact a child. What is going on?”
Paul meets his eyes. “They left. They didn’t say goodbye to Orlando, they wanted out of there as fast as they could.”
Marcus stares back skeptically. “Why was Everton here? This is a bit outside his usual haunt….”
“He…had heard something about our escape from the island, and Ms. Johnson’s plea for help when her circle went awry. It interested him.”
Marcus nods once and looks away. Whether or not be believes Paul, he seems willing to let it drop for now. “I didn’t know he had taken an interest in her. People he takes an interest in tend to lead short, exciting lives. Be careful.”
Paul looks up the hill at Georgia. “Noted.”
Paul starts to trudge back up the drive to rejoin the rest of us. Marcus, though, takes a shortcut, disappearing in a swell of shadow and instantly reappearing in front of Georgia. “So, Tremere,” he says brusquely, “You may not realize it, but I have given up a great deal to ensure you walked out of that castle alive. What return can I expect on my investment?”
Georgia blinks at him. “What sort of payment were you hoping for in return for this rescue?”
“I’ve had limited dealings with the Tremere in my time. I don’t like the Tremere clan. I didn’t like the Tremere clan back when you were founded. I liked the clan you replaced, I liked them a great deal.” He glares at her significantly before continuing. “I knew a Salubri once, many, many years ago. She was of great assistance to me at a moment when I needed great assistance. Since that time I have made it my business to know few Tremere, but I have known some. Adrianus, for all his predilections, has been of some help. But Adrianus is a peer, and you are a client, of sorts. You will have obligations as a result.”
“I…see…is that how the client relationship works?” She looks at me. I shrug.
“It is,” Marcus says. “There are obligations on all sides, of course. But having exerted myself to ensure that you’re still alive, I think I have lived up to my end of the bargain, so now it’s time you lived up to yours.” He draws himself up to his full nine-year-old height, which somehow, at this moment, is still imposing. “I wish to know the business of Gnaius Perpenna Vento. I do not know these dealings at present and my efforts to discover them have been unsuccessful. I don’t know your capacities, or what resources you have available to you in that wonderful Chantry of yours, but I know you will be of some assistance in this.”
She stares at him. “But, the Chantry was looted, and I don’t even know what was in it. I came to his city as a visitor, and a neonate—“
“And now you must be neither,” he says sharply.
She takes a steadying breath. “I am simply informing you, you may not get the results you might expect from the leader of the Tremere in a city like San Francisco.”
“Believe me, I’ve come to expect very little from any leader of the Tremere. I believe you’ve come to expect the same. Consult with Adrianus, and with Bell. You will find them compliant. They might not like it, but they will cooperate all the same.”
She sighs and gives a half-hearted cursty. “Whatever I can do for you, I shall.”
“Yes, you shall. I have every faith.” He turns to Anstis and me. I watch him warily, but a slight smile tugs the corners of his mouth. “And you two, I believe…have a boat to catch.”
(Me: “Hell yeah we do!!!”
So yes, despite having trekked all the way to Hearst Castle to rescue Paul and Georgia so they could come with us on the Boat Job, both of them respectfully decline to participate (for varying definitions of “respectfully”).
Marcus’s cars pick us up at the castle, winding down the mountain without any further incident, and drive us up the coast to an empty farmhouse where we spend the day.
The next evening, we all wake and spend the early hours of the night taking care of “chores,” aka bickering with each other and chasing down blood (literally at one point, in Paul’s case, during a failed attempt on some cows). Eventually Marcus reveals that he brought a supply, stored in the trunks of his cars, so all of us—except Georgia, with her feeding restriction against “powerless” prey—load up on that.
I also get a text from Sophia, asking if I’m ok. “4 NOW,” I reply grimly. I quietly ask Marcus if I can borrow one of the cars to go back to that pawn shop, still intent on finding the Nosferatu asshole who stole my whip. Marcus looks at me suspiciously but agrees.
On my way to the cars, Anstis trots up. “Tom! Where are you going?”
“Back to that fucking pawn shop to try and find that asshole,” I grumble.
“Would you like someone to watch your back?”
I scowl at him. I still haven’t forgotten the mysterious Dominate I know he pulled on me at Orlando’s. “I don’t know, you know someone who’ll do it without stabbing it?”
I climb into the driver’s seat of one of the cars. Anstis lets himself into the passenger seat. I glare at him again, but he just grins at me calmly, so finally I grumble and drive off.
Marcus watches us leave through the windows of the farmhouse, then tracks down Paul and Georgia. He tells them the driver for the other car should return within the next half hour and they can take the car wherever they want to go. In the meantime, he has to see to some things, so without further ado he and Aquilifer disappear in a swell of shadow.
Paul and Georgia sit quietly at the table to wait for the driver, the latter trying not to think about how much she needs blood, and the former trying not to think about how much he needs a new phone.
THE ASSHOLE’S PAWN SHOP
The pawnshop is just as empty and ravaged as we left it the night before. Police tape has appeared, criss-crossing the shot-out windows, but there’s still no sign of the Nosferatu. I’m poking morosely through the mess when my phone buzzes again.
WHERE R U? —S
I look out the windows at the “town,” so small it doesn’t even have a dot on the GoogleMaps. “Fuck if I know,” I mutter, but text back, Looking for the guy who took my whip.
ANYWHERE. ILL FOLLOW PHONE.
I look up. Anstis is still in the car, but from where he’s sitting, he has a full view of the pawn shop, and he’s watching me intently. I frown. Anstis doesn’t know about my direct relationship with her yet, and I’m not sure if I want him to….
I come back to the car. “I gotta go make a phone call! I’ll be right back!” I shout through the window. Anstis nods, and I head to the back side of the building, out of sight. Can talk now, I text.
Sophia immediately pops into existence next to me.
I grin, relieved to see her in one piece. “Heeeeey girl, you doing alright?”
By the look on her face, though, she is not. “Tom, we have a problem.” She glances around. “Is Paul here? I can’t get ahold of him.”
Her anxiety is setting my instincts on edge, but I maintain my cool to try and calm her down. “Yeah, he’s missing all his phones at the moment.” I hold up a hand. “I know, I know…the world may be coming to an end—“
She jumps at a sudden sound behind us, but it’s just a cat scurrying from some trashcans to the trees behind the shop. “We have a really, really big problem. Did Paul tell you what happened?”
“No, he just lectured me about what I should have done, which was apparently to not rescue him—“
She turns to me, face serious. “It didn’t work.”
Whatever humor that was left in the situation dies. “What didn’t work?”
“I tried to leave with someone and it didn’t work.”
I blink at her. “Tried to leave the castle? But you were alone when you left the arena.”
Sophia reaches into a pocket of her battered army jacket and pulls something out. I look down, expecting to see her tablet, but a thrill of horror shoots through me. It’s a severed hand. “This is from the guy I tried to leave with. Paul called him Everton. He was supposed to take me and go somewhere else, but he never got there, I did.”
I take the hand carefully. “Wow…well, when he find him, he’s gonna want this back, so—“
“Tom, I think he did that on purpose.”
I look up at her. “Why?”
“To get away from me. He had something, something I shouldn”t have let him leave with.”
“What?” She looks away, face scrunched in pain. “Girl….” I say pleadingly.
“…It was another werewolf,” she gasps finally. “A cub. I should have just taken it myself, but now I don’t know where he is or where the cub is.” She paces the gravel lot. “This is exactly what I didn’t want to have happen! Do you know how to find him?”
I watch her sadly, still clutching Everton’s hand. “No, I can’t even find this one asshole who took my whip, but….” Suddenly something occurs to me. I shake the hand at her thoughtfully. “…Stay here for a minute, I’ll be right back.”
I head back to the car. Anstis turns to me as I climb into the driver’s seat. “You know the thing you did on the boat?” I ask. “Where you borrowed my gun and teleported across the ship?”
Anstis frowns at me. “Aye?”
“You need an item that belonged to the person to do this thing?”
I toss the hand onto the dashboard. “Can you use that?”
Anstis stares at it and leans back. “Who is that? And where did you get it?”
“That’s not important right now.” I lean over the console. “What do you need to set up that thing?”
He glares at me. “Reason.”
I stare evenly back. “That’s Dr. Everton’s hand. He seems to have taken of something of value from someone who might be very…grateful…to get it back. “
Anstis folds his arms. “What is this item of value?”
I stare at him another long moment, then sigh. If he’s calling my bluff, I’d better show more cards. I pull out my phone. Hey girl, can you come over here? I text.
Minutes pass. No response.
I stare at it, concern rising over me. “Hold up,” I mumble. I climb out of the car and head back around the building. “Hey, girl, I think we’re gonna need some of your charm to help convince—“
I stop. Sophia is still there, but is now backed up against the wall of the pawnshop, eyes wide, staring into the trees a few feet away. I follow her gaze….
…To Marcus, sitting on a stump, staring right back at her.
“Oh, hey Boss.” I stare between them. “What are you doing here?”
“Hello, Tom.” He doesn’t break eye contact with her. “I was hoping to have an opportunity to speak with your…little friend here.”
“Umm…Okay, well, we’re working on something though—“
“Oh? Something important?”
I glance at her. She’s trembling, too paralyzed to look back at me, but I can tell that whatever this whole business with the cub is, she wants it on the DL. “Yeah…” I say carefully. “I’m trying to find this guy who took my whip, remember? Sophia is helping me.”
“Tom, I think we both know that’s not true. Paul’s a better liar than you are. You almost had me convinced, but I don’t think you’re here to find your damn whip, and I’m certain she’s not. Now…” Tendrils of darkness creep out of the bushes around him. “Does someone want to tell me whats actually going on here or do I have to pull it out of you?”
My mind races, trying to figure out the best way to diffuse the situation, so of course at that moment Anstis appears around the corner, stopping as he sees the standoff taking place.
“Captain,” Marcus barks, “How nice of you to join us.”
“Aye, and who is this….?”
“This would be, I believe the name is, Sophia? And if I’m calculating things correctly, Captain, you are looking at a werewolf.”
Anstis looks at the petrified teenager…and takes a step back.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry yourself overmuch, Captain, this isn’t the first werewolf I’ve encountered. Tom…” His gaze flicks to me finally, “Have anything to add?”
I take a breath. “She…needs some help with something, and hopefully is going to help me with my thing in return. This is what we do, I thought you understood….”
“I do understand, but here’s what I don’t understand. I don’t understand the full implications of everything thats going on here, I don’t understand why it is that you assembled yourself a werewolf in the first place, and I really don’t understand what it is about a werewolf that would drag you out to the Farallones and back. I can talk of clientage all I want, but that’s my background, not yours.” He glares at me. “What she was doing in Orlando’s castle?”
“I don’t know, I told her not to come,” I say absently. Her trembling has gotten worse the longer Marcus talks. I reach a hand out. “Girl? Hey, hey, it’s ok, just chill—“
“Be easy with her, Tom, she is, afterall, facing a living legend.”
There’s a mocking edge to Marcus’s voice I don’t like. I hold my other hand out toward him. “Ok well everyone just chillax here and well figure this out.”
“Oh we will figure this out, we’ll figure it out quite efficiently.” Marcus nods at us. “Tom, Captain…Would you give us a moment?”
My stomach drops. Sophia’s head snaps around toward me, expression pleading.
Anstis nods one to Marcus and walks back around the building, out of sight but still within earshot. I, though, don’t move. “I…don’t think that’s a good idea to leave her unchaperoned, you know how these kids are these days.”
“Tom, if I can suffer you, I can suffer her.” He grins unsettlingly. “Are you afraid I’m going to eat her?”
She whimpers once. As a matter of fact, I am a little afraid of that, but I try to find a way to word things more diplomatically. Of all the times to not have Paul around…. “I’m…afraid she will do something that will escalate the situation.”
“Well she is a werewolf, they have short tempers. But I don’t think even a werewolf is going to try something here.” He smile at her. “I don’t think I’m going to let her. And I do think I’d like a word with her, so, if you don’t mind….”
I stare at him, remembering how quickly he dealt with Max, a Tremere archmage reduced to bloody sand in an instant. I take a deep breath, and then a step…to stand between him and Sophia. “I…think I really do mind, Boss.”
Marcus stares at me a long moment. “Tom. I’m going into that building and talking to this werewolf. And, while I appreciate that you like her, that is something I’m going to be doing. It would be best if you left us to talk about what we must say. Because I’ve been hearing about this werewolf for some time and we have lots to discuss.”
I fold my arms. “And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be there, considering I’m involved in most of this.”
“Well, suffice to say I can think of a reason. We’re talking whether the werewolf likes it or not, Tom, and I’d rather you didn’t have to make a very difficult decision, cause you’re prone to making bad ones. And this would be a terrible one.”
I look at her. Her chest is heaving, breath steaming in the air, just like in the arena the night before. “Boss I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to be left alone with you and I’m not going to willingly let that happen.”
“Are you insinuating I might act ungentlemanly?”
I fight a sneer of disgust. “I’m just saying.”
“And if I make you?”
A strange sense of calm washes over me, knowing that even if he does—using me for his whim with a power like the forces of Fate—at least I would have stood by my decision, knowing it was the right one. “That’s…your decision.”
His eyes narrow. “Tom, in other contexts that could be interpreted as an insult to my dignitas, particularly given that I am asking you to do a thing and you are not doing it.”
“I’m not saying I distrust you, Boss, I’m saying that she seems particularly nervous, and that’s enough for me.”
“Of course she’s particularly nervous, I’ve killed seventy werewolves in my time, and if I chose to make her the seventy-first you wont stop me. You might try, but you won’t.”
My fingers twitch instinctively. Unspoken is the fact that I have tried before, when we first met. I wasn’t successful, obviously, but that was many months and a lifetime of experiences ago. Now, with nothing else to lose, if I dumped everything I had into it—
Sophia finally gets a deep breath. “I-I’ll go with him,” she whispers.
I turn to her. “Girl?”
“I’ll go with him, just…wait outside. He can make you leave and kill you if you don’t. I’ll…hear what he has to say.” Her eyes are still terrified but she nods, as if trying to make herself believe the words.
I turn back to Marcus. He raises an eyebrow. “Takes a thing of doing, that. I can’t walk into a room with a werewolf and guarantee you what the result will be. But I am asking you to walk away.”
I turn back to her. “Are you asking that too?” I ask firmly, trying to convey that her opinion is the only one that matters at the moment.
She closes her eyes, gulps, and nods.
I reach out hesitantly, wanting to clasp her hand, or grip her shoulder, or something to comfort her. I stop myself, though, worried that my touch—the touch of the Wyrm—will make it worse.
And then I walk away, without sparing a glance for Marcus behind me.
END OF NIGHT
Jason: “Ladies and gentlemen, may we have a moment of silence for Maximilian von Strauss.”
*group sigh, pause….*
Jim: “…Alright, that’ll do.”
Jason: “Yeah, that’s enough.”
Chris: “None of the original Primogens remain. In fact the entire leadership structure is different.”
Kara: “No, Karl’s alive!”
Jim: “…For now.”
Jason: “And so is the Baron—Kara! What are you kicking me for?”
Kara: “I was going to eat Max!”
Me: “Yeah, I feel really bad, she mentioned it like two weeks ago, and I totally didn’t think that was going to go so far so fast. I thought that maybe Marcus would, like, disable him and she could jump on him.”
Kara: “I thought there was going to be a huge fight!”
Jason: “I thought there was going to be a huge fight too, but you guys didn’t put your foot in your mouths the way I expected you to. My script had a whole series of contingencies for, like, ‘If the players do this stupid thing I think they’re going to do, Immediate Terrible Violence!’ “
Cameron: “Yeah, the actual lines were like one page, and the contingencies were an extra fifteen. Most of them were, “If Tom says anything…,” or, “If Paul says anything….” Things like that.”
Jason: “Actually there was one scenario I considered that involved Marcus literally punching Tom’s jaw off.”
Me: “OH SHIT!!! To shut me up!?”
Jason: “If you got lippy with Orlando at the wrong moment, Marcus would have to institute instantaneous punishment, or else Orlando would. And that would mean Strength 8 Potence 6 punch to the jaw.”
Me: “Like the fucking polar bear in The Golden Compass…jesus christ….”
Jason: “Well, the alternative was Orlando calls in fucking everything. The reason Marcus was so nervous there was cause he wasn’t sure he would win that one.”
Chris: “There may or may not have been multiple moments where I was rooting for everyone to kill everyone.”
ACTUAL END OF NIGHT