1/9/2015

Jim: “You know, in some ways, several hundred of my characters have died this campaign.”
Chris: “So you should clearly be 400 xp behind everyone else.
Jim: “…Goddamit.”
Chris: “May each of us have 60 xp from Anstis?”
Jason: “No, I’m just gonna dock it all from him. Jim, you go back to a starting character.”
Kara: “You have negative 200 xp.”
Jason: “You have zeros in all stats.”
Cameron: “Your new character is Slayer.”

***

ALAMEDA

Many members of the crowd gather around Paul to congratulate him on his fine flyting and even finer fighting, for a Toreador. A few men lift up Bev’s staked body and drag it off. Paul watches a moment, then pointedly looks away.

Meanwhile, I make my way over toward Anstis, who’s standing back from the crowd, watching Marcus with a strange look on his face. “Hey, Captain, I need to get my gear off your boat. I got a guy who can help, but can you give me a ride to the Peninsula?”

He scowls at me. “Why did you leave gear on my sub?”

I blink. “…You saw me bring an entire crate of Panzerfäuste on board, and an hour ago you didn’t give me a chance to get them off!”

He looks toward the water. “The sub will be surfacing once more, in an hour, then remaining submerged for a long while.” With that he stalks off.

I stare after him, struck speechless by his entirely new level of jack-assery, but then irritation rises and I grope through my muddy, still-damp clothes for my phone. I was planning on doing this anyway, but this is going to be more complicated than I’d hoped:

“Yo,” Slayer answers.

“Hey, son, what are you up to?”

“Uh…nothing, nothing at all.”

I frown. “That sounds suspicious.”

“Naw, everything is cool…around here….”

I hesitate a moment, wondering if I care, then decide I don’t. “Kay. How good of a swimmer are you?”

“…Why you asking me that?” The nervousness in his voice pitches up noticeably.

“Cause I gotta unload some stuff off a nuclear submarine out in Alameda and I don’t have time to do it all myself.”

“…Um…could you say that again?”

Nope, do not have time for this. “Did I stutter??” I bark.

“No! No, I just…did you say nuclear submarine?”

“Yes! We’ve been hanging out for weeks now, why does this surprise you? Bring a delivery van or something, cause it’s a lot of shit to haul.”

Slayer is quiet a long moment. “It’s almost midnight, where the fuck am I going to get a delivery van!?”

“I don’t know! Where the fuck you gonna get some other guy to watch your ass instead of turning you in…to….” I trail off as I realize something completely, deliciously awesome. “…Look, you’re going to find something and get it out here because I am fucking looking at Helgi Isarnbjorn as we speak, so if you want me to introduce him to you—“

“NO! NO! FUCKING NO! JESUS!!! I’ll be out there!”

I grin. “Good! A pickup truck with a tarp if you have to! Just something that’ll haul some shit!”

“I’ll find something! Okay! Just don’t give me to Helgi! God, fuck me….” he whimpers.

“Maybe later.” I hang up, suddenly feeling a lot better about my night.

#

The crowd eventually clears, breaking into groups to resume whatever usual political business occurs at Helgi’s Things. Paul takes a moment to admire the roses on his shield again. He glances around the rough-looking crowd, wondering whose handiwork they are, and his eyes fall on the only other Toreador he knows, Leeland.

Paul makes his way to him. “Leeland, is this your work?” he asks, holding up the shield.

Leeland eyes the painting. “Mine? No. You think I would dare try something like that with Helgi’s purview? Helgi wants something done, he wants something done his way. I assume he did them, or one of his crew.”

“Actually, I did it,” a voice says. A man approaches from the crowd, tall and dark-haired, in slightly less-ornate Anarch leathers, but with a long trailing duster. He nods at Paul. “The name’s Matt. Congratulations, on both fronts,” he says crisply.

Paul blinks, surprised, but soon regains his diplomacy. “…Ah, thank you, Matt, I love the handiwork on the shields. This is nicely done.”

Matt shrugs and looks around. “I got a little talent. Not much, but enough.”

“You’re too modest.”

Matt shrugs again. “Not really. “

“Been in the Bay Area long?”

“No,” Matt says. There’s a long moment, but he doesn’t elaborate.

Paul and Leeland trade a glance. “Well, you picked an interesting time to show up,” Paul says.

Leeland looks Matt up and down. “I don’t think I know you.”

“No, you don’t.”

Paul frowns. Matt’s standoffishness seems strange, even for a vampire, so Paul decides to get a literal read on him through an aura-read….

(…And botches. HARD.
Jason: “Uh, we have a problem here. This guy is a SEEEERIOUS diablerist, black veins so thick they blot out the rest of the aura, though what little you can read looks deceitful.”)

Paul tenses…then maneuvers himself so Leeland is between him and Matt. “So…you’re not from around here?”

Matt doesn’t comment on Paul’s sudden shift in behavior, or even seem to notice. “No. Kinda a nomad, but I heard Helgi was doing his thing, and how many times are you going to see a thousand-year-old viking in action?”

“That makes sense,” Leeland says, glancing curiously at Paul. “Well, I am Leeland, Baron of Berkeley, and, this, of course, is Paul Stewart, flyter of vikings and pisser in other people’s Cheerios. So what, incidentally, do you plan to do now that you’ve managed to drastically humiliate half the Hell’s Angels and cause Helgi to tear you apart in rhyme?”

Paul shrugs, still eyeing Matt cautiously. “Hopefully keep a low profile, cause that’s worked out well for me so far.”

“Well, be sure and say a few works to Helgi before you leave. You wouldn’t want him to think you’re a sore loser. Bad things happen to people he thinks are sore losers.”

Paul glances at Bev’s staked body, dumped ingloriously by Helgi’s massive runed motorcycle. “I can imagine.  Matt, it was…nice to meet you….” Paul backs away from him carefully

Matt turns to him. “Paul, just one thing. You lost very well against Helgi. And you won very well against the other guy. This is a triumph for you, even if you didn’t get everything you wanted.”

Paul nods. “Well, I walked away alive, so that’s a good 50% of what I want everyday.”

#

Paul leaves Leeland and Matt and meanders over toward Doc. Doc congratulates him on the win, but Paul laments not being able to rescue Adrianna. Doc asks if he has some personal obligation to her. Paul hesitates and admits that no, he simply thought having a Prince in his debt wouldn’t be a bad place to be in. Doc nods slowly and points out that losing Adrianna means more than losing a possible ally. The Camarilla leadership back East has been distracted with other things, but losing a Prince on top of everything else that’s been going on cannot and will not be ignored.

Georgia, eventually wanders as well over to talk to Doc, who greets her with gentlemanly aplomb. He congratulates her on her new position of Regent and asks how she is faring with her so-called “reptile problem.” She says she has already dealt with the immediate issue, though she suspects something more may be going on. She still doesn’t know why Claude was so interested in taking the Chantry in the first place, for instance.

Doc nods sagely and posits that perhaps it wasn’t the Chantry itself he was after, but rather something in it. Georgia points out that the place was already sacked by Perpenna before Claude arrived. With that, a brief flicker of dread mars her cheery exterior, as she realizes that whatever the hell attracted the focused attention of a Lasombra Methusula and a dragon is probably something that will turn out to be very interesting indeed.

#

With all the bustle and mingling going on, Anstis easily slips away and finds a quiet area to himself. He glances around, looking for Marcus, but the interfering Roman—and his infernal  bird—are apparently missing. Seeing his chance, Anstis takes out his phone and calls Xiang Li Weng.

“Captain,” Weng answers.

“I have unfortunate tidings to report,” Anstis says.

“…You have lost the item,” Weng says flatly.

“Aye. Marcus Sertorius appeared and took it from me personally.” Anstis glances around again. “I find he shows up when he’s least desired.”

“This is most regrettable, Captain. This is entirely why we had intended to acquire that item. Are there prospects for you to retrieve it?”

“Not at this time.”

“We will pay a great price to retrieve it. A great price indeed. But if you cannot get the amulet, there is another we can use in its stead.”

Anstis hesitates. “…What is it?” Anstis asks carefully, hoping it’s not the bird.

“A sword. A very particular sword. It goes by the name of Arx Tarpeia and he goes with it at all times. I don’t know which of these items is easier to acquire, but we must have one.”

Anstis nods. “I shall do what I can.”

“I shall hope that you do, Captain. However there does remain the more pressing matter. Have you the wherewithal to initiate what we discussed? To find…her, and eliminate her?”

It takes a moment for Anstis to remember. Xia, the mysterious enemy that Weng has commissioned him to find. “I shall endeavor to spend the next few nights seeking her out.”

“Good. Do not come into Chinatown until you do. It is not a matter of success or failure, the more you enter Chinatown, the more she may suspect you work with us.”

“Understood.”

Weng hangs up. Anstis once again scans the crowd for Marcus, thinking….

#

Meanwhile, I am making my way through the crowd, also looking for Marcus. There’s no sign of him low to the ground, so I shift my attention up.

There…silhouetted against the ambient glow from Oakland, a large bird is circling, making its way east across the base. I follow the trajectory and my gaze falls on the hulking shape of the USS Hornet.

I grumble. Of course he’s there, he couldn’t pass up such a dramatic backdrop if he tried. I still have some time till Slayer shows up with the truck so I start making my way there.

#

Anstis sees me leave the crowd and head into the darkness. Suspicious, he launches into bird-form to follow.

#

I reach the fence surrounding at the base of the Hornet’s dock. Being a decommissioned museum ship, I assume that no one will be around at this hour, but to my surprise there’s a guard at the gate. He looks up as I approach.

I swagger up as non-chalantly as possible. “Heeeey, am I too late for the tours?”

He stares at my muddy leathers. “Um, the museum is closed, sir. Private event.”

“Oh? What sort of event? Did Google rent it out again?”

“No. There’s a scouting overnight on board.”

I hesitate and glance up to confirm that it is, in fact, Aquilifer circling overhead. Which means that Marcus is, in fact, on a boat full of boyscouts.

“Well, I gotta see this,” I mutter.

(Me: “Awe.”
Jim: “Whaaat? You have Awe?”
Me: “FUCK YOU!”)

I flash my best winning smile. “Oh, yeah, my…nephew is here and he needed something from home, so I had to bring it.”

The guard blinks, disoriented. “Oh, your nephew? I…guess, if it’s quick—“

“Great, thanks.” I brush past and head up the gangway into the ship. Distant sounds of kids and laughter echo through the corridors, but I follow the signs up to the flight deck. It’s empty and unlit, swept by cold breezes from the bay. Aquilifer lands next to me as soon as I step outside, cocking her head in her begging gesture. Once again, though, I shrug apologetically. She keens and lumbers into the air, gliding low across the deck, toward a small figure perched at the edge of the stern, looking out over the naval base and the lights of the island.

I sigh. Yep, dramatic moment indeed. I walk toward him.

#

High above, Anstis flutters down to one of the aerials of the conning tower and huddles down, watching, and listening.

#

My footsteps rasp against the rough deck, but Marcus doesn’t look up as I approach. I stop behind him, off to one side, for all intents and purposes watching the view calmly, but inside I’m writhing anxiously.  My thoughts from ride back to the Bay flash through my mind, jumbling together and contradicting one another. I take a breath, considering the best way to bring them up, or even if I should….

“I assume you’re not here to join the slumber party,” I say finally.

He continues staring across the island. “Would you believe they asked me? I suppose I’d believe it too.” He fiddles with something in his hands.

I peer over. “Did you get the bag back from Anstis?”

Marcus tenses, then lifts it up. “The bag… Yes. Yes, I suppose. Where did you find this?”

His distant tone worries me but I plunge forward anyway. “It was in the scepter, in a box on Accio’s ship. In one of the cargo rooms. I don’t know if the bag was moved before I found it.”

“Oh its been moved many times. In fact I’m rather surprised it’s all still here.” He toys with the leather cord, winding it around his fingers. “You haven’t the first idea what this is do you?”

I shrug. “Looks like a dice bag, Boss.”

(Jason: “ಠ_ಠ”)

“…In a sense. It’s called a bulla.” He hefts it. “It’s lighter than I remember. I suppose that’s to be expected.” He sets it on his lap then, finally, looks up at me. “I presume you didn’t just come here to talk about memories of the past.”

I hesitate. Part of me wants to just blurt out what I want and get it over with, but something tells me that even with his strange mood, this is a subject that needs to be approached carefully. “Well, you seemed more out of sorts than usual when I mentioned it. So I wanted to make sure everything was back in order….”

“It is and it isn’t, if you know what I’m saying. I haven’t held this in 2,100 years.” His expression turns thoughtful. “I have an odd question for you, Tom, cause you’re considerably younger than I am. And I know you’re not a Toreador and given to artistic flights of fantasy, but…do you remember the sun?”

I blink. This is a track I wasn’t execting. “Um, mostly.”

“How well? Any particulars of it or just the general idea of a great ball of fire in the sky?”

“I remember…the sun rising over the city…and rising over the fields near where I grew up.” I snort. “But that’s mostly cause of the painting I have that shows it.”

“Yes, I’ve seen that painting of yours. I presume you know the artist. I figured that had to be why you were keeping it, it’s not exactly Renoir.”

I glare at him. “Yeah…well, she was sixteen. I assume she got better—“

“Your Assamite?”

The word brings a lump to my throat. He could have called her my sister, but something tells me he chose the name on purpose. I nod. “Yeah.”

“I don’t have to tell you how that’s likely to end, right?”

I look away. “I honestly don’t know.”

“I don’t either, but you’ll forgive me, I’ve been through similar situations a few times, and seen others go through them. These things tend to end badly.”

“Well. It didn’t start well either, so…full circle.”

Yes, well. So you remember the sun, then? Would it surprise you to learn that I do as well? Even after all this time. But I remember it now specifically because I saw it. An hour ago.”

I look at the horizon and do some quick math, then I realize, “…Oh, Paul’s thing.”

“Yes. The weaponized sunlight. He’s going to be making an announcement in a couple weeks about how he’s going to develop this thing. He has absolutely no idea what’s going to happen thereafter, though he thinks he does. Every elder vampire who thinks he has a shot at taking control over it will try. Hundreds of them. Ones that haven’t been seen in public for quite a long time.” He looks up at me. “That’s why I’m letting him do it.”

“To…shake things up?” I ask cautiously. Marcus doesn’t seem the type to enjoy chaos for entertainment’s sake.

“No. To bury them.” He turns toward the city skyline in the west. “Perpenna has a plan, a very precise plan. I don’t know what it is, I don’t know how to stop it, and I don’t know that I can. And as you might imagine, Tom, it’s not a common thing for me to admit as much. But whatever his plan is, dropping a stampede of elder vampires with conflicting ideologies on top of the city he’s about to do it in isn’t likely to help him very much. Especially since I suspect at least some of them will be stronger than he. And they’ll eat each other to get the sunlight. And everyone around them.” He pauses. “Paul’s about to kill everyone in the Bay Area.”

My stomach wrenches, my own concerns momentarily evaporating. I stare at the city and the lights of the bay, surrounding the water like a jeweled necklace. I imagine the sodium-yellow beacons replaced with glittering daylight, before winking out one by one.

“…And there’s not even a point in trying to stop him, cause if he doesn’t, someone else will.” Marcus shrugs. “Or no one will and Perpenna will do whatever he’s trying to do.”

“What do you plan to do?” I mutter.

“What do I plan to do? Well, for the moment I plan to sit here, listen in on a few conversations, and just…watch. For awhile.”

He stares toward the base, and the distant clumps of people still visible on the tarmac, but it’s not long before his gaze tracks back down to the bag in his hands. He toys with the string a moment before continuing. “Do you know what these were used for? They’re amulets, designed to ward off curses. The Evil Eye. The things we thought were real until we decided they weren’t until we realized they were. I remember having it. And losing it…funny how things work out.”

He puts it away in his tunic and turns to me. “So, what are you doing here, Tom? Surely you’re not just here to taunt Aquilifer with your lack of food.”

I hesitate. “I’ve had an interesting couple of nights, too.”

“Have you? And what do you consider an interesting night?”

“Well, Monterey was a start.”

“Monterey….” He sighs. “Monterey was an unpleasant situation. Do you believe you’ll be able to stop it from happening again?”

No, quite frankly, but my mind races to spin it: “…I believe I have a better sense of the scope of the thing.”

“For now.” He glances at me. “You’re a Brujah Tom, this is how it works. You know that. We all have to deal with it, you just have to deal with it more than most. I think you’re used to that by now.”

I shuffle my feet. “Yes…well, it seems like Don Esteban and our friend Mr. Bell excepted, Brujah don’t seem to aspire to much.”

“That wasn’t always the case. I knew Brujah who would light the heavens just to start a campfire, and I’ve heard tell of even greater ones. Gaul, and Carthage, and the like–”

(Me: “ELEPHANT CAVALRY!!!!“)

“–But nowadays they’re a bunch of anarchs and bikers. Rebels without a clue.” He hesitates, then chuckles. “Course, I suppose I shouldn’t talk.”

I nod vacantly. With this discussion of clan particulars, it may be time to get around to my point. I take a breath. “Something happened on one of Accio’s boats, Boss. The submarine, when we got there. We basically kicked our way in—a hundred feet under water, which is cool in and of itself—and I did my thing, kicking ass and taking names, which…worked well.”

“You’re extremely good at that, Tom,” he says flatly.

“Thank you,” I answer with equal levelness. “But it wasn’t until it was all over that I realized I probably didn’t have to. The majority of Accio’s men seemed to be zombies more than actual goons.”

“Then you may have done them a favor. Long-term dominate does them to people.”

I suppress a shudder. “Look, the point is that I seem to have one M.O. these days. At some point I’m going to come up against something I can’t punch my way through. Or something that punches back harder.”

“Well, you’ll forgive me Tom for playing my own lyre for the moment, but you already did.” He smirks. “You’re very good, but you’re not quite that good.”

I nod and take a long breath. “Which is why I think I need to…diversify…my options.…”

Marcus falls quiet. At first I worry he doesn’t understand what I mean, but as the silence stretches I realize he must. “Diversify your options….” he repeats slowly, then looks up at me. “I don’t suppose you’re here on Anstis’s behalf?”

My anxiety evaporates. “…What? God, no, fuck that guy! He has all my shit on his boat and he’s holding my dignity hostage to get it back! Fucking pirate!”

#

High above us, Anstis’s parrot-y eyes narrow.

#

“Yes, well, I wouldn’t recommend being under his sway for long. Anstis has a very black hole somewhere in his core,” Marcus says.

I look back toward the bay. “Great, it matches his new ride,” I grumble.

“To a point. I don’t know what he wanted this for, but I can imagine a few things. But then again, there’s a great many strange things going on around. Some I’m sure you know about, and some you might not.” He points toward the Thing. “I don’t know if you can see, but…the man standing there, beside Georgia?”

I squint. I don’t have enhanced sight, but I see a cowboy hat bobbing above the crowd. “Doc?”

“Yes, Holliday. He’s an interesting character.”

“He is.” I frown. “He always seems to show up where he’s most needed.”

Marcus nods slowly. “In my experience, limited though it is, Salubri are good at that.”

#

Anstis’s eyes widen and he stares off at Doc, appraisingly.

#

I frown at the unusual word. “Is that another Roman thing?” I ask.

“No. No, I don’t know what the Salubri are. No one does, or admits to. They’re extinct. Or they should be. The Tremere devoured them all to become the Tremere. Which is why I find it ironic that he would be hanging around with Georgia, of all people.”

“Perhaps he considers is a joke?” I suggest.

“The Salubri aren’t jokers. No one quite knows what their game was, which is why they’re all dead. I don’t know if he thinks he’s being subtle or not, but I’ve known what he was since I first saw him. There are Tremere out there who would give you more or less anything you asked for for his head, and better yet for his staked corpse.”

#

Hearing this, Anstis clenches and shuffles along the radio aerial, bird-brain spinning with possibilities.

#

I realize we’ve gotten off the topic I was hoping to aim toward, but I’m not sure how to bring it back. “…Why do you mention this?”

He regards me a moment. “Cause I don’t think you’re planning on taking them up on that offer, are you?”

“What? No. Not the least reason being that I owe Doc, like, four different favors.”

“Mm.” He’s quiet a moment. “Doc and Paul have been talking a bit recently. I don’t know exactly about what but I think I have some idea. Mystical mumbo-jumbo I’m not supposed to know about, cause I might stop him or get in the way. Or turn him in to the Tremere.” He shakes his head and lifts his amulet again. “Salubri and sunlight, and this. All in the same night. It’s almost enough to make you think the world was ending.”

#

(Jason: “Paul, Georgia, what have you been up to?”
Chris: “I have been making the rounds saying hello to the dignitaries and humoring people who give congratulations or whatever.”
Jason: “Alright. Theres’ a few other people who introduce themselves, but they’re all just general Anarchs who don’t seem to have a particular position, but then most Anarchs don’t have particular position. Even Helgi doesn’t have a particular position cause he’s an Anarch.”
Chris: “Well, if you would listen to my flyting, you would realize he only assumes the missionary position.”)

#

As suggested, Paul goes to say his goodbyes before leaving the base. “Helgi, this was an exciting evening. Your reputation was not overstated.”

Helgi chuckles and nods graciously. “Thank you. Would you like to see one last trick before you go?”

Paul glances at Georgia, who shrugs. Paul sighs. “Why not.”

(Jason: “Cameron, if you blood-eagle him, I swear to god….”)

Helgi gins and tosses his head back, letting loose a series of deep, vibrating caws.

#

Marcus tucks the bulla away and turns to me. “So. With all this happening, and all of the concerns you already have to worry about, you’re looking to…diversify?”

And just like that my anxiety is back. I nod carefully, watching his reaction. He watches me with his dark eyes, then opens his mouth to speak—

Suddenly two black shapes plummet out of the sky. Aquilifer’s head snaps up and she launches into the air, but they spiral around her with ease. One continues circling, mobbing her, while the other grabs the back of Marcus’s tunic.

(Jason: “….Goddamn you, Cameron.”)

I catch a brief flash of the look of resignation on his face before the raven lifts him with surprising ease into the air. I lunge forward to grab his foot, trying to pull him back, but I get hoisted up instead.

(Me: “Motherfucker!”)

Aquilifer screams but she doesn’t dare attack the raven while it’s holding Marcus suspended over the bay. Instead she paces us as the birds carry us back to the airfield, dumping us on the concrete in front of Helgi.

Helgi laughs at Marcus’s furious expression as he climbs back to his feet. “I thought that we’d like to have everyone together for the final bit of the night,” the viking rumbles.

“Helgi…I was in the middle of something,” Marcus growls, moments before he’s smothered by Aquilifer landing practically on top of him, preening at him anxiously.

Helgi chuckles. “Well, you can get back to that soon. Now, is there any other pressing business for the night?”

I too climb to my feet, avoiding the stares of the crowd. As if showing up covered in mud wasn’t bad enough, now I have this injustice to add to my impression. Maybe if I slip off I can start unloading the sub—

“Tom! You’re here too!” Helgi bellows. “I heard tale of some sort of conflict off the coast recently?”

I freeze. All eyes are on me now, but this is probably as good an opportunity as ever to regain my reputation. I clear my throat. “Yes, actually, it was quite a battle—“

Helgi leans forward, eyes twinkling in a decidedly not-jolly way. “Yes, with a certain someone who had something of mine?”

I freeze again, but this time it’s because ice has just plunged into my stomach. The fucking stolen Semtex. The thing I was tracking down for fucking nights on end, and totally fucking forgot about until right fucking now.

(Me: “…Was I supposed to bring it back to him?”
Jason: “Yeeees. But now who’s got it?”
Me: “…”
Jason: “Morgan. You gave Helgi’s Semtex to Captain. Fucking. Morgan.”)

I stare around the crowd, compassionless-faces faces watching me expectantly. “…I…got a bunch of hand-held rockets….”

Helgi takes one heavy step forward, all traces of humor gone. “A handful of firecrackers is not the same as two ton of explosives,” he rumbles. “You promised me my Semtex, and I will be expecting it back.”

#

Anstis, meanwhile, has returned to the party and resumed human form. Hearing this development he steps away to call Morgan. He asks the pirate if he found the Semtex, and Morgan confirms. Anstis says he has interest in acquiring it, all of it. Morgan prices it at one million. Anstis readily agrees.

#

I glance around. Marcus is watching both of us cooly. He probably won’t let Helgi kill me, but if he allowed Paul to enter a duel with a Brujah…. I clear my throat again. “Well, you know, a lot of Accio’s boats were destroyed in the battle. And I don’t remember seeing any crates of Semtex on the ones we raided—”

“So you’re saying that it could be at the bottom of the ocean?” Helgi rumbles.

“Uhhh….” My mind races, trying to find a way off the gaping cliff I am so precariously perched on, but anxiety grips my throat and I sputter, wide-eyed.

(Me: “…This is the worst night.”
Chris: “Hey, but at least the wimpy Toreador wasn’t more badass than you.”)

“Are you going to come to the point or are you going to continue to sound like one of those new-fangled motorboats?” Helgi asks. The crowd laughs, and the shame climbing my spine twists into rage. My fists clench. Marcus glares at me warningly.

I beat the panicked anger back down. “I’m sure we can contact Morgan and get this whole—“

Morgan?” Helgi cries. I freeze again, wondering if I shouldnta’ said that, but Helgi laughs. Ahhh, good man, that! You made quite a fine choice on that one, Marcus. I sailed with him before you embraced him.”

“It was your recommendation that convinced me,” Marcus says, eyeing both of us tensely.

“Well if it’s in Morgan’s hands, I’m sure something can be arranged,” Helgi says.

And that’s when Anstis blows back in from the crowd. “Your items will be returned two nights hence,” he announces.

“Ahhh, excellent.” Helgi nods and claps Anstis on the shoulder, while I glare at him. Anstis shoots me a triumphant grin. I turn away before I make more of a fool of myself and go to stand next to Marcus.

Helgi is still chuckling. “So, quite an interesting thing happened out there. Pity that I missed it. But I haven’t been on a ship in, what, two hundred years?”

“Why Helgi,” Marcus mutters, still glowering, “I didn’t think you’d ever be landbound that long. In Constantinople we had to lock you up to keep you off the water.”

“Well, that’s because I only got to light Alexandria on fire twice!”  Helgi booms.

With Helgi distracted—and, apparently, placated—I take a few steps back, hoping to melt into the crowd, but then a new noise echoes across the tarmac, tinny and discordant. Everyone looks around, confused, as the noise gets louder. It’s a tune. As a matter of fact, it’s “La Cucaracha”—

Seconds later, a taco truck squeals to a halt nearby, the anxious face of Slayer behind the wheel.

I close my eyes. Maybe, if I’m very lucky, this is all a hallucination, and I actually died in an explosion back on the submarine.  “Do you feel like this all the time when you’re dealing with me?” I mutter to Marcus.

He, also staring at the truck, shrugs. “…Ninety, ninety-five percent of the time.”

Slayer stumbles out. “Alright man, alright, I got the fucking truck, I….” He trails off as he sees the crowd of Anarchs staring at him, Helgi towering in the middle like a leather-clad maypole. Slayer blanches “…Oh, shit….”

I force through the crowd and storm over, snapping him out of his shock. “I told you Helgi was here,” I hiss, “What the hell did you expect?!”

He sputters. “I-I thought you—“

Shut up and don’t draw attention to yourself! Oh wait, it’s too late for that, what the fuck is this!?” I kick the truck with a clang.

He stumbles back. “It’s all I could find, man!!!”

“Hey,” a voice says. We turn. The strange Anarch known as Matt is standing there calmly. “Do you have any ground beef in there?” he asks.

Slayer gapes at him. “I DONT FUCKING KNOW, I JUST TOOK THIS THING!”

Matt’s question, though, gives me an idea. “Wait a minute, do you have steak?” I force Slayer aside and climb into the truck, digging around the coolers till I come up with an entire chafing dish filled with carne asada. I come out and drop it on the ground outside. “Quill!” I shout. The eagle appears like an alpine wind, knocking Slayer aside, and lands to shove herself face-first into the meat.

Slayer stares, sputtering, but before he can say something, Anstis walks up and claps him on the shoulder. “Ah! You must be Tom’s delivery boy!”

Slayer turns, then squeaks and stumbles as he see’s the pirate’s grey, oily skin and tentacle beard looming over him. “You…you’re…you’re that…fuck me, man!!!”

“Maybe later,” I mutter as I drop a tray of ground beef next to the carne asada. Helgi’s enormous ravens descend on it, followed by a cluster of normal-sized ravens that I assume belong to Matt. “Captain, how long till the boat comes back?”

Anstis shrugs. “Twenty minutes.”

“Right, so, Slayer, in twenty minutes a submarine is going to surface off-shore. It’s filled with my guns and a whole lot of rockets, I need you to offload and put it all into your…” I glare, “…vehicle.”

Slayer collects himself a bit and glances around. “Alright, well where’s it gonna dock?”

I level a Look at him. “I asked if you could swim, son.”

Someone taps me on the arm. “Tom, aren’t you going to introduce us?” I hear Marcus ask.

Slayer looks down and snarls. “Who the fuck is this kid!?”

I hold up a warning finger. “You better watch your tone, son.…” A brief thrill of joy passes through me as I realize what’s about to happen. “…Slayer, this is Marcus Sertorius Posthumus. I believe you helped introduce us quite a while ago, if you remember.”

Any color left on Slayer’s face drains instantly. He starts shaking, gaping like a fish, and I glance down to make sure he hasn’t pissed himself. Again.

Marcus steps forward, arms folded calmly behind his back. “Well. Good to meet you at last. Come with me a moment, we have a lot to talk about.” He walks around to the far side of the truck. Slayer hesitantly follows, the look on his face like a man being lead to the gallows.

Which, for all I know, may be true. Though I hope it’s not, cause I really don’t want to swim back out to the submarine myself.

#

Having finally made their polite exit, Paul and Georgia are on their way back to San Francisco when Paul gets a call from Bell. Bell isn’t exactly thrilled that we all have been hanging around with the Anarchs, but there’s not much he can do about it even if he wanted to, since he’s now Marcus’s bitch. Paul explains he was trying to secure the release of Prince Adrianna. He apologizes for failing, but Bell doesn’t seem too broken up by it.

Bell asks if any of us other assholes are still at the Thing. Paul says I am. Bell thanks him, advises him to drop Georgia off at the Pyramid so he can speak with her in person, then hangs up.

#

Once Marcus and Slayer step out of sight, I’m left alone, surrounded by fucking birds eating taco meat. Many of the Anarchs are still snickering at me from a distance. Ignoring them, I peer at my wobbly reflection in the side of the truck, trying to brush off the worst of the mud-stains, wondering if the night could possibly get more irritating.

And that’s when Theo Bell calls me.

I jab “Accept Call” and slam it against my ear. “WHAT!!?!!

A pause. “Bad time, Lytton?” Bell says, voice laced with warning.

Not the best!

“Tell me you’re not fighting Helgi?”

I glance at the viking, chatting with his men. “No, but that might be an improvement on my night so far!”

“Are you still at the Thing? I need to talk to him.”

Motherfu…. I stalk back to the crowd and thrust the phone at Helgi. Helgi frowns and takes it carefully in his enormous hands.

“Helgi Isarnbjorn,” Bell’s voice says, resonant enough for me to hear even without Auspex.

Helgi’s face cracks into a wide smile. “Oooh, I remember that voice. Ida says hello, by the way.”

“Does she,” Bell says flatly. “I’m not here to talk about old times, Helgi. Do you have Adrianna?”

“Yes. We are still talking and voting on what should be done. There’s a large number who want her dead.”

“Well we all know, Isarnbjorn, that theres only one opinion that matters, don’t we?” Bell says.

They chat for a bit, Bell grim and Helgi jovial, eventually making arrangements to meet and discuss the fate of Adrianna themselves.

#

THE PYRAMID

Paul and Georgia arrive at the Pyramid. Georgia is confused about why Bell wants to see her suddenly, but Paul offers to go up with her. They meet him in the Prince’s office. As usual, Bell is working at the desk when they enter, but there’s no ghouls in sight.

“Mr. Stewart, Ms. Johnson,” Bell says without looking up. “I hope your night has gone well.”

“Been pleasant so far, yours?” Paul asks.

“Well that depends on whether or not I have to concern myself with the strange reports from off the coast. Something about Chinese smugglers got in a fight with a rival gang and blew each other up. At least I think that’s what the story’s gonna be, I haven’t finished writing it yet.

Paul and Georgia trade a glance. “Sounds…noisy.”

“Yeah.” Bell shoots a look at him. “A bunch of local fishing boats caught wind of it and it’s gonna be fun convincing them all that’s what happened. But I didn’t want to talk to you about that, I wanted to talk to you,” he points at Georgia, “About the Chantry. I’m assuming it was you who decided to bust the door in and start cleaning house?”

Georgia blinks. “I’m…restoring my clan’s base in the city, if thats what you mean.”

?Well, the last I was there, your ‘clan’s base’ was the vessel by which a monster from beyond Hell came through and tried to eat me, so you’ll forgive me if I’m a little interested in the details of whats going on there.”

She sighs belaboredly. “I’d prefer he not do that again.”

“Well, he did do that the last time, so how are you going to stop him?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I don’t even know how he got in the first time.”

Bell waits till she meets his gaze. “He was let in. By your predecessor. Whom I haven’t seen in awhile, by the way.”

Paul and Georgia trade another glance. “He’s…no longer with us,” Georgia says. “Not my doing, unfortunately, but….”

Bell takes the news of the loss of yet another Primogen fairly well, staring at them flatly. “So does that make you ranking Tremere?” he says finally.

“If van Brugge isn’t claiming the title, then yes, it does.”

Bell snorts and shuffles some papers. “van Brugge barely knows how to claim his own shoes. Is there something else I should know about in that Chantry of yours?”

Georgia hesitates a long moment “…Not anymore.”

“That implies there was something there before. May I ask what?”

“Yes you may,” Georgia says brightly.

A long moment of silence. “It’s been a long couple of nights. Maybe you want to get to the point,” Bell growls.

She sighs. “Well, there was a dragon inside the Chantry, but it’s gone now.”

Bell rolls his eyes. “I assume it’s the same one I’ve been hearing so many fun things about. And how did you get it out of the Chantry?”

“I asked it to leave.”

Bell stares. In the silence, Paul turns to her and says, “Nice work!” Georgia smiles and thanks him.

Bell takes off his sunglasses and rubs at his eyes. “I don’t think I want to know more about that. I’m gonna need you to keep me updated in the status of the Chantry. If you can get it back to working order, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but that might improve our situation here. But I want to be very clear, in case I wasn’t before, and because there has been some question about this subject around here recently.” He levels a finger at them. “No. Gargoyles. If I find out anyone is making gargoyles after all the shit thats gone down in this city, I will attach their heads to the top of this pyramid.”

Paul glances at Georgia nervously. “Full disclosure, I have a gargoyle in my Portola Valley house that I’m trying to rehabilitate.”

“Did you make the gargoyle?” Bell asks.

“No.”

“Then I don’t care. Official line is gargoyles are vampires like the rest of us, we treat them as normal.”

Georgia beams at Paul. “I’m so glad you still have him! You should bring him back to the Chantry, he and Bob can spend time together!”

Before Paul can respond, Bell continues. “Anything else I should know about? Say from that meeting of yours out in Oakland?

Georgia pats Paul’s arm proudly. “Paul is pretty good at poetry.”

“Congratulations,” Bell growls and looks back at his papers. “Let me know if anything disastrous happens. Either call me or scream loud enough.”

Paul nods and turns to go, but Georgia hangs back. “Can I see van Brugge? Is he still here?”

Bell pauses, then leans back in his chair, clasping his hands. “Oh, he’s here.”

“Is he…awake?”

“Not as such, no. van Brugge and I are…working a few things out.”

Georgia blinks. van Brugge’s astral projection at the flyting didn’t indicate that anything was wrong. “Is he okay?”

“Not even slightly. He’s on ice.”

Georgia frowns. She and Paul glance at each other, confused.

The leather creaks as Bell leans forward. “I’m a Justicar, it’s my prerogative. He’s on ice because I am concerned about the minor prospect that if I were to wake him up at this particular juncture—“

(Me: “—But…he was awake earlier, at the flyting!”
Jason: “…van Brugge? OH! Sorry, I screwed this whole thing up, I thought you said Van Nuys.”
Everyone: “Oh. OOOOOH!!!!!!!!
Jason: “…Yes, I fucked the whole thing up. I apologize.”
Me: “OMG, he found the Prince!? Fuck that guy!”
Jason: “Yes, let’s back up:”)

Bell leans back in his chair, clasping his hands. “van Brugge isn’t here, I don’t know where he is. He’s a Tremere Fireman, he doesn’t consult me on his whereabouts.”

Georgia shrugs. “Fair enough, I’ll get in touch with him later.”

Paul shifts awkwardly, glancing off-stage through the fourth wall. “…Is there…any news on Van Nuys? Or the Sheriff?” he asks woodenly.

“The Sheriff? No, but I found Van Nuys. Dug him out of a place I’d rather not go back to,” Bell grumbles. “He’s upstairs, but he’s not in speaking condition at the moment. I haven’t decided if it’ll be necessary to kill him or not. My concern is he may not be the one upstairs, if you understand my meaning.”

“You…think he’s possessed?” Georgia asks.

“Well I took him from a place in which there were a great many individuals trying to cut me to pieces, and every single one of them had a face of a man I knew.”

“Was it Clarence?”

Bell nods slowly. “As a matter of fact it was.”

(Me: “Yeah, that’ll happen.”
Jim: “Do do dee doo….”)

“Wish we knew what was going on with that,” Paul sighs.

(Jim: “You know, in some ways, several hundred of my characters have died this campaign.”
Chris: “So you should clearly be 400 xp behind everyone else.
Jim: “…Goddamit.”
Chris: “May each of us have 60 xp from Anstis?”
Jason: “No, I’m just gonna dock it all from him. Jim, you go back to a starting character.”
Kara: “You have negative 200 xp.”
Jason: “You have zeros in all stats.”
Cameron: “Your new character is Slayer.”)

Paul spends a moment pondering the mystery of the Neverending Asshole, then shrugs it off. “Mr. Bell, assuming we survive all this, how long are you staying in town?”

“Until I’m certain that we are going to survive all this.” Bell points at him. “Understand, I’m not here to save you. I’m not here to save her, I’m not here to save Van Nuys. I’m not here to save anyone in particular. I’m here because I’m concerned that whatever the hell is going on here is a major, major threat. The last time I saw something this bad it was someone trying to fire nuclear weapons at the capitals of half a dozen cities to start a war to end the world. That ended badly. This is already ending worse.”

“How many Justicars were involved with that?” Georgia asks.

Bell meets her gaze. “Just one.”

There’s an awkward silence, then Paul continues. “The reason I ask is the way things have gone, I don’t think Van Nuys will be able to hold the city together, even if he finds his Sheriff.”

“Piecing the city back together is concern #2, after we ensure that whatever is in it isn’t about to blow the planet up. But in the aftermath…I agree. Van Nuys has shot his bolt and were going to need a new prince.” He looks at Paul. “And I’ll be taking volunteers when it’s all over, cause god knows I don’t want it.”

“You and me both,” Paul says evenly.

Georgia looks between them. “I nominate Jupiter,” she says brightly.

#

ALAMEDA

Marcus and Slayer finish their Come-to-Erebus talk and return, Marcus looking just as calm as when he left and Slayer looking so pale he’s practically transparent. Avoiding the feasting birds, Marcus walks over to Anstis and starts interviewing him on what he’s planning to do with his shiny new submarine. Anstis glowers but says that he has some things in mind, some wrongs he needs to right.

Marcus cocks his head. “Revenge?”

“I was betrayed,” Anstis grumbles.

“I wouldn’t have thought any of your betrayers are still with us, or is that perhaps the point?”

Anstis nods slowly and stares toward the west. “Some of them may be still with us.”

Marcus nods and looks around slowly, observing the space between them and the rest of the Thing’s crowd. “Any idea what you’re going to do if you find them? Betrayal is the worst possible sort of crime.”

“It is,” Anstis answers.

“Well, I would never stand between a man and his rightful revenge. And I do wish to thank you for the services you provided, both in returning this, and dealing with Accio. Just one minor thing though, before I let you go? It’s a manner of some confidence.” Marcus leans forward and beckons Anstis to lean down. “…Never assume that you can hide from me,” Marcus hisses.

Marcus locks eyes with him and in a blast of pure psychic will, erases all memory of our conversation Anstis overheard on the Hornet.

#

Meanwhile, Slayer has begun his retrieval- and delivery-job. The Twilight, recently resurfaced, is now floating offshore, though further out because of the tide. Slayer flails his way out there and hauls himself sputtering up to the deck. He lays there a moment, only now considering how the hell he’s going to get inside—

“Did you ask for permission to come aboard?” a voice booms right above him. Slayer looks up to see Anstis staring down (having just flown back over), wind tossing his coat and the pirate-y plumes of his hat.

Slayer squeaks and dives back into the water. “Permission to come aboard!” he gasps once he resurfaces.

Anstis cocks his head. “…Granted,” he says finally.

(Jim: “This is so satisfying!”
Me: “Isn’t it fun!?!”)

Slayer scrambles his way back to the deck and Anstis lets him inside. Slayer gathers my weapons, including Vera and all the Panzerfäuste, and brings them up-top. He’s then faced with a new dilemma: getting everything back to shore without getting it wet.

(Me: “…Not my problem.”)

Slayer casts around for ideas, eventually noticing an inflatable escape-raft stowed in the hatch of the conning tower. He looks at Anstis—still overseeing him stoically from the deck—and gulps.  “P-Permission to use the raft?”

Anstis strokes his tentacle-beard. “What’s in it for me?”

“I…” Slayer glances toward the base, panicked. “Man…I’ll suck your dick, man! I’ll do whatever the fuck you want, I just gotta get this shit back!”

Anstis frowns. “You’ve been hanging around the sodomite too long. Tell you what, I’ll let you use the raft…in exchange for a favor.”

Slayer nods vigorously. “Sure, sure man, whatever you want!”

Anstis grins. He’s not entirely sure why, but suddenly he feels like his night has just gotten a little better. “Good,” he growls, taking out his phone. “Give me your number.”

#

THE CHANTRY

Paul swings by to drop Georgia off at the Chantry, and Georgia, without a trace of irony, asks if Paul wants to come inside. He cautiously asks why, and she says she needs to work on reestablishing the wards and wonders if he wants to help. Paul is skeptical he will be much help, but he does want to check on Bob—as well as Wolfgang, who should have been dropped off by now as well—so he agrees.

Bob is nervously pacing inside the foyer when they enter. “Regent!” he cries and hurries over.

Georgia smiles. “Bob, hello! What are you up to?”

He freezes. “W-What do you want me to be up to?”

“Um…whatever you’ve been doing is fine.”

He gestures down the stone-lined hallway behind him. “I was exploring the Chantry….”

“Oh, what did you find?”

He tenses. “Um…I didn’t leave it there.”

Georgia looks around. “Leave what where?”

“The…feces in your office.”

Georgia blinks a moment…then smiles. “Ooh, that’s so sweet. Was it dragon feces?”

Bob wrings his hands. “Well, it was bigger than me, so….”

Paul steps forward. “What did you do with it?”

“Oh, I got it out of the office, but technically I…delegated.” Bob puffs his chest proudly.

“To the Nazi?” Georgia asks.

“…What’s a Nazi?”

Georgia sighs. “To Wolfgang?”

Bob nods vigorously. “Yes, I think that’s his name. You said I was head ghoul, so, I assumed….”

Paul, meanwhile, is still watching Bob appraisingly. “Bob, what’s your last name?”

Bob’s jaw works soundlessly a moment. “I…was told not to remember that.”

“You can remember it now,” Paul says firmly. “Isn’t that right, Georgia?”

Bob shakes his head. “No, I can’t. I’m sorry.”

Georgia leans over to Paul and whispers, “When I met him, he didn’t even have a first name. I called him Bob.” She turns back to Bob. “Would you like a last name?”

“Well…certainly. …What would I do with it?” Bob asks hesitantly.

Georgia sighs. “Perhaps we can deal with that later. Where’s Wolfgang?”

“In the basement, removing the last of the feces.”

“Ah, so that means the office is open!” Georgia claps her hands. “Thank you for taking the initiative, and for going to the office, so we know we can enter that far without anything bad happening to us.”

Bob hesitates, then nods vigorously. “I’m…confident that’s true!”

Georgia sweeps down the hall, leaving Bob and Paul in the foyer. Paul watches Bob, and Bob squirms under his gaze. “…Bob, have you ever had ice cream?” Paul asks after a few moments.

Bob blinks. “What’s that?”

Paul smiles. “I’ll be right back….”

(Chris: “Paul goes to a corner store in Russian Hill and gets ice cream.”
Jim: “Shitty ice cream?”
Jason: “Uh, well they should have Dreyer’s, Ben and Jerry’s—
Me: “IT’S IT!!! GET HIM AN IT’S IT!!!! “)

Paul returns to the Chantry and meets Bob in the foyer. Bob watches, awed, as Paul takes the package and unwraps the plastic. “Here, try this,” Paul says handing it over.

Bob takes it carefully. “What is it?”

“It’s food.”

Bob frowns as he fondles it. “But…it’s cold.”

Paul gestures encouragingly. “Try it.”

“Um….” Bob glances around. “Is the Regent okay with this?”

“Yes.”

Bob stares at it. “I…really think I should ask the Regent.”

Paul sighs and looks down the long stone hallway. “GEORGIA!” he shouts, voice echoing.

“…What?” Georgia’s distant voice responds.

“Can Bob have an ice cream?” Paul shouts.

“…Sure!

(Me: “No, it’ll spoil his dinner!”)

Bob takes a tentative bite, carefully slicing through the layers of chocolate, cookie, and ice cream. He chews a moment, eyes widening at the taste…

…And then Paul gets the profound experience of watching a grown man experience his very first brain freeze.

#

Georgia, meanwhile, has entered Max’s van Brugge’s the dragon’s her office and is rooting through the books, looking for something about the wards. While flipping through a book on ghoul management, though, something makes her stop. A sense that someone urgently wants her attention. She looks up, but the room is empty. “van Brugge?” she says hesitantly.

Is this the San Francisco Regent? a voice says in her head, like van Brugge does, but it’s not van Brugge. It has a deep timbre and weight of age as well as authority.

She puts the book down. “Um, yes? Hello? Who is this?”

I am Augustus von Rabenholz. I have come to San Francisco. I am making my introduction.

She cocks her head. “Pleased to meet you? What is your title and why are you here?”

I have had many titles. Are you American?

“No. Why do you ask?”

I am trying to select a title most appropriate for you. I have found with Americans they do not understand the nuances. You may address me as Pfalzgraf. Or Count. Or Kurfürst.

“I see….” She paces the room. “To what do I owe the nature of this introduction?”

I have been sent here by your superiors.

“Which ones?”

I can’t say. But it is simple courtesy for me to introduce myself. I must also state that my presence here is of the uttermost secrecy. May we arrange a meeting?

“I suppose…I’m not terribly inclined toward trusting strange voices that tell me to keep secrets. “

Hmm…. Are congratulations in order?

She pauses. “What for?”

For being new to the position of Regent.

“…What makes you think that?” she asks carefully.

No particular reason.

Georgia is quiet a moment, tapping the edge of the desk. “…I see. In that case, can you meet me in Washington Square, in North Beach?”

I can. Half an hour, Washington Square. With that, the presence disappears from her mind.

Georgia frowns, then picks up the book on ghoul management—

(Jason: “This is a book of Tremere ghoul management, you realize.”
Kara: “So?”
Jason: “A quarter of the book is taken up with torture techniques.
Kara: “Well, I skip over those.”
Jason: “The next quarter of the book is the proper use of Presence and Dominate to ‘incentivize.’”
Kara: “Ooo, that sounds handy.”)

—Which is somewhat ironic, considering that moments later, Paul comes in for a serious discussion on what to do about Bob.  They argue for almost half an hour, moralizing and rationalizing. Paul wants Bob rehabilitated and returned to the world,  Georgia maintains that that’s a bad idea for everyone involved. The question of whether Georgia even views Bob as a person lurks ominously under the surface of the conversation. At one point, Bob himself wanders in, melted chocolate all over his face, and watches in mute awe as Mommy and Daddy fight about him.

Finally, from exasperation as much as anything else, Georgia concedes some points, saying she’ll get Bob a floor rug for his room and, quote, “look into finding some sort of vampire therapist,” to help him reacclimatize to the world.

“Good,” Paul says as he moves to leave, “When you do, maybe they can help my gargoyle too.”

#

ALAMEDA

With Slayer off busy on his task and Marcus talking to Helgi and a few other people in the crowd, I remain by myself next to the truck, watching the birds make short work of the meat. Once the ravens finish pecking at the taco meat they all fly off, but Aquilifer cleans out the entire tray of carne asada and looks up at me with an expression begging for more. I roll my eyes. She’s worse than some dogs I’ve known. But I climb back into the truck anyway and pull out another tray, this one of carnitas.

When I get back outside, Marcus is there, standing next to her, watching me with a strange expression on his face. “Tom. Come with me a moment.” Stomach churning, I place the tray in front of the bird and follow him onto the the tarmac, away from the truck.

Marcus stops a some yards away, staring at the distant, glittering skyline of San Francisco. I wait patiently. “So,” he says finally. “You’ve destroyed Accio’s fleet, returned my stolen property to me, managed to avoid killing Anstis in the meanwhile—somehow—survived Helgi’s ministrations, and acquired enough firepower to conquer Panama.”

I nod. “And got a sweet taco truck.”

“Yes. So what will you do now?” He turns. As usual, he’s staring up at me, but also as usual, I simultaneously feel the weight of his gaze bearing down. “You spoke of…diversifying. Do you even know what you mean by that?”

If my heart still worked, it would have shifted up a gear by now. I glance around. Helgi and the remains of the crowd are yards away, perhaps not actually out of ear-shot but enough that I feel like they are. I take a steadying breath. “I know what I’m thinking I mean by that.”

Marcus watches me. At any moment, I’m expecting him to laugh in my face, telling me to fuck off and go hang out with Slayer, where I belong. It certainly would be a fitting end for the night. But he doesn’t, and his face is unreadable. The silence stretches. Eventually he extends a hand to the side. Shadows wend up from the cracks in the pavement around us, pooling at his feet and circling. “Do you know what it is to craft raw shadow into form?” he asks.

I watch the shadows drift. “I’ve…seen quite a lot of it lately.”

“You’ve seen, yes. But this is not some parlor trick, tom. This is the essence of what it means to be one of us. I have seen men flayed alive for divulging the slightest secret of Obtenebration. I have flayed them.”  He sighs and pulls out the amulet, turning it over in his hands a moment before continuing. “I am grateful to you, Tom, I really am. You have no idea what you’ve done by giving me this back. I never thought I’d see it again. I assumed it had been destroyed. That Anstis wanted it is worrisome.”

I glance toward the water. The outline of the sub is just visible, highlighted by the lights on the far shore. “A lot about that boy is worrisome,” I grumble.

“You don’t know the half of it, I’m afraid. Theres some black iron surrounding him. He’s no simple Gangrel. But then, few Gangrel actually are.” He’s quiet a moment, then tucks the bag away. “But I digress. I asked you before if you remember the sun. What precisely do you remember of it?”

I take a breath, trying to condense the daily reality of half a lifetime into a few words. “Heat. Light. Sunburns. Color….”

“Yes, we do have a lack of that around, don’t we.” He looks pointedly at my clothes, black leather and denim, and then at his own tunic, a navy so dark it might as well be black. I shrug apologetically. He rolls his eyes. “I mentioned that I remembered it quite well. That’s not exactly accurate. I remember one day, but I remember it perfectly. I can imagine you can guess which one.”

“Your last one?”

He turns away, arms folded stoically behind him. “Amazingly melodramatic, I know. But it wasn’t because of what happened after. You know who my father was, you have that little tablet that tells you a passable version of the story. I never knew him very well. He had a war to fight, after all. But a few weeks before he died, I received word that I was to come with him on his latest campaign against Pompey Magnus. I remember that day because I was, the day after it, to start proper training as a Roman tribune….” His voice softens. “I was overjoyed. I spent the entire day in the hills above Numantia. Playing some foolish child’s game. ’Centurion,’ or something of the sort….” He trails off, and there’s a few moments of silence before he turns back to me, face hard again. “What do you remember of your last day?”

Memories I hadn’t thought about in years flash into my mind. I push them back to keep them from overwhelming me and shrug. “Honestly, I didn’t have that much of a day. I’d been working the night before, so I woke up late. Think it was almost three in the afternoon before I went outside. I rushed through the day, thinking about my plans for the evening. Didn’t even watch the sunset….” Now I trail off. Had it been clear that day, the sun casting gold on the skyscrapers downtown, or had the fog come in, pouring over the hills, smothering the light before its time….?

Marcus watches me. “And then it happened. By surprise?”

I shrug again. “Certainly wasn’t expecting to meet a vampire in the club.”

“And yet you claim you were not entirely unwilling. Some conception you had about curing diseases and living forever.”

I fight to keep the pain off my face. “Well, there were a lot of people looking to magic and crystals and shit during that time, out of desperation. I didn’t really believe any of it, but…part of me wanted to. Some guy rambling in my ear with promises was just tempting enough.”

“Were you inebriated?”

I bark a laugh. “Ohh, oh yeah.”

“I’ve seen that before. I’ve had ghouls beg me for the embrace while drunk. I’ve known plenty who’ve given in.” He scowls. “I don’t ask about these things for old times’ sake. I ask about these things because I have a more important question….”

Then, without even a gesture, Night is upon us. Dark, cold, suffocating if I breathed air, smothering the light around us. My animal brain tells me to panic and run but I fight it back, waiting….

“Tell me Tom, what do you feel?” Marcus says, voice soft and distant, but pitched as if he’s shouting.

I close my eyes, though it doesn’t make a difference. “Cold. Emptiness.”

“Emptiness…gnawing hunger of some sort, outside arms reach? So let me ask you….” The cloud pulls back, revealing a column of empty air and him standing in front of me. The shadows still circle us like a wall, a storm of darkness surrounding its eye. “What do you think I feel in the middle of all that?” Marcus asks.

I shrug. “Something similar? Though it seems you can see better.”

“We can see through it, but it’s still the Abyss, pouring forth into the reality that we all use. But what do you imagine I feel when this roiling cloud of nothingness overcomes me?” The shadows around us twist.

I look at his eyes, soaked in that same darkness. “…Worse?” I say hesitantly.

He sticks his hand into the wall of shadow, then pulls it out, flexing his fingers. “…Nothing. I can’t feel the difference.” He turns to me. “I remember my last day, I remember it perfectly. But it’s not the heat, or the warmth of the sun, or the light, or any of those things, because I haven’t felt any of that in a great many years. It’s because when you take Erebus’s path and bring gods of darkness into your existence, there is a cost.” His last word rings like steel. The ghost of my heart beats faster.

Marcus regards me a moment before continuing. “This is a very serious matter. You can punch hard, run fast, take a bullet to the chest, command people to listen to you, and maybe a few other tricks. Those are disciplines, capacities our blood gives us. This…” He gestures at the wall, “Is something very different. Very serious. And you ask for me to give it to you. Do you have any idea what you are asking for? If you pull open a hole in reality and look into the Abyss, are you ready for what looks back?”

I glance at the wall around us. Maybe I’m imagining it, but strange shapes seem to twist in the gloom, darker than the darkness around them. A shudder climbs through me but I remain firm. There may be unknown horrors in the shadows ahead, but there are a good number of horrors behind me as well. “I think that if I keep going forward with this…” I gesture at myself, “…version of life, then perhaps I need to look it full in the face.”

Marcus lifts his chin, considering this. “And why should I give it to you? This gift I have given to no-one in the past, besides my childer?”

A tendril of anger twists through me like the shadows outside. A list of all the things I’ve done for him runs through my mind, aching to blurt out. How I became a mole in the Prince’s court, how I stormed a dragon’s lair to find him, how I protected him when he was bloodsick when any number of assholes in town would have given their fangs to have a chance at him, how I risked a fate worse than death to stand up to Perpenna rather than betray him.

And how, when he set me free of my obligations, I came back willingly, and not just because I didn’t have anywhere else to go.

Caution grips my tongue, but my thoughts must be clear on my face because after a long moment he nods. “Here’s the thing, Tom. You’re a Brujah. I know how Brujah are, but even by Brujah standards, you’re one of the most irreverent I’ve ever encountered. And that’s fine, that works for you. But this is a deathly serious matter to me. I know you hear me blathering about gods you’ve never heard of and consider it as much claptrap as your father’s sermons on Christ.”

The shadows behind him swell, encircling him like a cape. “But there was a time, Tom, when Obtenebration in all its forms meant literally more to me than anything else I had in the entire universe. I don’t worship Erebus because he gives me power. I worship Erebus because for a very long time, he was the only one listening.” His voice is flat, no trace of metaphor or irony. I shift nervously, unsure of how to respond to such alien spirituality, but in this place, I’m not entirely sure I disbelieve him.

He continues, “There are those who regard it as some kind of greater mystery, the source of all un-life and the like, but no. What it is is very personal. Each of us decides it for ourselves. So I’ll ask it again. Why should I give you my shadows, Tom? My shadows which, like this…,” he holds up his leather amulet, “…were once everything in the world to me? What is it worth to you, and why?”

I shift again. “Is that another way of asking me why I want it, or what I’m willing to give up for it?”

“Are those not the same question?” He smirks. “Let’s try a different approach. Do you think it’s just some clever trick to give yourself an impressive entrance? There are a hundred ways to do that, so why this?” He gestures to the walls.

I glance around. “Yes, but this…has a statement to it.”

“What statement is that?”

A memory flashes, from the night of the Last Elysium, after Marcus and Perpenna disappeared. I remember watching the look on the Prince’s face as he realized I was working with Marcus; his anger and indignation that wasn’t playing by his rules, and his fear that I was something he couldn’t control….

I grope to put that feeling into words. “It says…that I don’t care about whatever rules are being handed out by whatever asshole is sitting at the top of that concrete triangle downtown.”

Marcus tilts his head. “You want it because it’s forbidden,” he says calmly.

A thrill shoots through me. It’s not fear.

“It is, in most cases,” Marcus continues. The tendrils pull back into the wall and he starts to pace around me. “You want it because it’s forbidden, you want it because it’s rare?”

Yesss… a voice inside me whispers. For a moment I think it’s my Beast, but…it’s not. Outwardly, I shrug nonchalantly.“It’s unexpected, for sure.”

“Well that still doesn’t get to the essence of it. What are you willing to give up for it?” Marcus asks.

I blink, taking mental stock of my life. The list is pretty short. “I…gotta lotta guns—“

“Oh you have plenty to offer, but it’s not the guns.”  He meets my eyes as he passes. “What if I offered to give it to you, but in exchange you must give me your Assamite. What say you to that?”

Cold shoots through me like the cold surrounding us. I’ve been avoiding thinking about Isabella for nights now, afraid of what lies down that road. I know I’ll have to deal with it at some point, but this isn’t how I’d hope it’d come up. “I…don’t even know what it would mean to give her up. I don’t even know her know…. She could be a completely different person.”

“She could, or she could be exactly what you remember.” He stops in front of me. “Choose. Sight unseen. Give her to me and you get the shadow, otherwise, never. What do you say to that?”

My mind balks at the question, too many emotions seething within. Desperately, I stall for time. “…Is this a hypothetical or an actual question? Cause I don’t understand what you would want with her in the first place.”

“It’s irrelevant,” Marcus snaps. “I will do as I wish with what is mine. Devour her, keep her as a pet, sell her off. Anything I like. Yes or no, Tom?”

My mind flashes through a thousand memories of childhood, so long ago, but just one memory from recently: the photo of her in an alley, covered in blood. Somehow, that photo looms larger than the other ones. Am I really selling off my sister, or a completely different person I’ve never met? “Is…this the only option?” I ask hesitantly.

“This is the one thats on the table. If you don’t like it, find someone else to teach you Obtenebration. I’m sure Perpenna would make an offer.”

I can’t help but snort. “He already did.”

Marcus lifts an eyebrow. “And how well did that go?”

“Well, the great gaping hole in the middle of the Tenderloin is evidence of that.”

“Yes, I imagine….” Suddenly, Marcus’s smirk turns cruel. “…A less theoretical subject, then, since you haven’t seen your sister in some time. Let’s try something you do have…your werewolf.”

My heart falls.

Marcus steps forward. “Give her to me, and you can have the shadows. I could take her myself, of course, but I want you to give her to me.”

New emotions rage through me. I close my eyes. “Do I have to choose between the two?”

“No, this is the option now, and I’d like a direct answer.  Yes, or no?”

I take a long breath, then meet his eyes. “…No,” I say firmly.

Marcus leans back. “No? Why not? What’s a werewolf to you?”

A good question, and for once, I go with a straight answer, “She’s…I don’t know what my sister has become, but I know what Sophia is, and that’s…well, something similar. An ally, at the least, or…client, as you put it.”

“She is an ally, and she is a client, but lets not pretend that’s not why you said no. You said it yourself, you care that she reminds you of someone, or maybe the idea of someone. And that is whats more valuable to you than the shadows, isn’t it?”

I don’t respond. After a moment, I look away.

Marcus sighs. “I don’t know what to make of you, Tom, I really don’t. Course I’ve made it my habit not to make anything of Brujah. You’ve killed enough people to fill the city morgue by now, and yet you prattle on about how important it is not to give up this werewolf, whom you know well enough is not likely to be alive in ten years, and guaranteed not to be in a hundred. The shadows are forever, and yet…no?” He shakes his head. “Well, what if I offered you a different deal entirely. What if I offered you…Aitor’s deal?”

Aitor, Marcus’s most recent childe. The one I accidentally killed by simply handing Bell my phone. My mind flashes back to what Aitor told me about his past, the last time I saw him before he died. It was only a few weeks ago, but somehow it feels like years. “The contract?”

“Effectively. I can’t make you into a vampire, but it will be for me to remake you as something other than the Brujah you are. If you wish to join the shadows, you’re looking in some regard to join the shadows’ clan. You’ll certainly be suspected of it.”

I realize he’s not talking about Lasombra. “…They might be suspecting it already,” I say.

Marcus chuckles darkly. “They might be. You’re hanging around with a Sabbat Priscus, you’re probably out devouring babies every night. After all, that’s what I must be doing.”

“That’s what the werewolves say,” I mutter.

He looks at me sharply. “Yes. It is, isn’t it. But no matter. My contract. A century. Longer than you’ve been alive, human or otherwise. A century of servitude, absolute servitude. I know you think you already have to do what I say, so what’s the difference? You’ll find out very quickly.” The walls press in closer. “There is a difference between a client and a slave. You would serve me, and my purposes alone. And whatever you think you know of me, I’m capable of all manner of horrible things.”

My gut churns, but I believe it. Marcus said himself that at least some of those werewolf legends were based on fact. “…Can I still boss Slayer around?” I ask with a weak smile.

Marcus doesn’t smile back. “…No. If I chose, I could make you serve him for twenty years. Might do it just to amuse myself. This offer has no guarantees, no conditions. When I found Aitor he was rotting to death in a Francoist prison in the mountains near Barcelona. I gave him one very direct choice: serve me for a century, unquestionably, against his former compatriots if that was my choice, or be left there to rot.” Marcus shakes his head slowly. “Aitor was a communist, but he didn’t serve communism when he joined me.”

I stare at the shadows, now pressing closer, inches from my skin, part of me still screaming to run away, but another, smaller part urging me to reach forward…. “Before I decide, I’d like to state, for the record, what my priorities are….” I trail off, leaving the implied meaning unsaid: to see if he’ll have some manner of mercy on them.

His eyes narrow. “And they are?”

Once again, I make a mental tally of my life, but this time I’m less surprised at how short it is. “I guess it’s just…Sophia, and this city.” I hesitate. “Paul’s alright too. I mean, he’s an ass, but he’s nice enough.”

“Paul is a dreamer, and he’s about to embark on a hellish process that I doubt even he fully comprehends. One I was denied.…” Marcus pauses, staring into the darkness. “But so be it, let him find what he can find. I have no use for Holliday and his gaggle of Golcanda-seekers. A man does not seek to defy his fate, he accepts it and moves on.” He waves a hand dismissively. “Anstis is a pirate, nothing more and nothing less, and the Tremere is…a Tremere. A polite Tremere, but she is a Tremere. But what in the hell are you? Brujah are flighty of course, but you are entirely different. You have some attachment to a city that barely qualifies, and a werewolf you barely know, all of whose associates want to kill you, or may well herself. What really are you giving up?”

I think a moment. What did I do before all this drama started? Hang out in bars, listen to the record collection I had Slayer sell, the random odd night-job and occasional apathetic hook-up. Night upon night of soul-less filler. “…The ability to fuck around whenever I want, I guess. Fight the system.” I grin sheepishly.

Marcus doesn’t return the smile. “I am the system, Tom. Perhaps not the one you know, but I am a Roman, and a Roman does not embrace Anarchy. A Roman does his duty. Do you know what a duty is? You may have seen a samurai film or seen Klingons debating it on the television, but you haven’t the first idea what it is to have duty. You would under me.” He paces again, and my stomach sinks further with each step. “You’d have but one duty and your duty would be to me. Your priorities would be irrelevant, mine would be the only ones that mattered. Are you prepared to undertake that, if it means getting what you want?”

I’ve given up a lot in life but I’ve never given up myself, and my brain locks up at the thought. I look away, staring into the darkness. A moment. A minute. The silence inside this space is absolute, and stretches long.

Marcus watches patiently. “The Japanese have a saying,” he says finally, “That a true man should make every decision in the space of seven breaths. Any decision-making beyond that point is tainted by desires and irrelevancies.”

What the hell, it’s worth a shot. I close my eyes and take slow, measured breaths, their sigh the only sound in this shadow-muted space. The breath itself isn’t comforting, no sensation of the cool rush of life, but the rhythmic movements still give me a sense of being, of existing. The world may have fallen to darkness around me, but I am still here, and would be, for as long as I keep moving forward.

I exhale the last breath. “…Okay,” I whisper. The word echoes through my prison.

Marcus is silent a long moment. The shadows drift behind him. When he speaks, his tone is strangely companionable, “I know I’ve said this before, Tom, and I’ve said it in all earnestness, but I will say, with the greatest of sincerities…you might be the weirdest Brujah I have ever met.”

“Good,” I mutter, still processing what I’ve just done. “That means no one is going to see this shit coming.”

He watches me flatly. “No, they won’t, but not necessarily the way you mean.” Instantly the shadows disappear and reality returns. The first thing I see is the lights of San Francisco, glittering in the distance. Grief suddenly clenches my throat. Will Marcus make me do something to my city? Will he order me to leave?

I glance at him. He’s staring across the airfield. The moon has finally risen, its light shining on Slayer in the distance, dragging what looks like a loaded inflatable life-raft behind him. Marcus and I watch him dispassionately a few moments.

“I have no idea how in the world to teach you Obtenebration,” Marcus says finally. “But I suppose there’s a first time for everything.” He turns to me. “You say no one will see this coming? You do seem to like that sort of thing, don’t you? Well, I’ll give you one I bet you won’t see coming at all.”

He steps toward me. I wince involuntarily, but he moves past, toward Aquilifer, and as he passes he pats me on the arm. “No charge,” he mutters, and keeps walking.

I freeze. My mind lurches from self-pity to bewilderment. Is this a trap, or another test, or did I miss something….? I stare after him, but he’s focused on Aquilifer, stroking her neck and picking bits of carnitas off her face. I take a breath and walk over. “Boss…I don’t…I…um…what?

He bursts out laughing. It only lasts a moment, but it feels like something genuine, which only confuses me more. “Ooh, Tom. What am I going to do with you?” He looks up, seriousness back on his face. “You know what you did here, Tom?” He waits a moment, and when I don’t answer he continues. “I offered you the shadow in exchange for your werewolf, and you said no, without hesitation, without question. I offered to give it to you in exchange for a hundred years of absolute servitude, abandoning every ideal of your clan, and possibly even allowing me to force you to do the werewolf in yourself…and you agreed to it.” He shakes his head slowly. “You know what that means?”

I scowl. When he puts it that way…. “That…I’m not good at thinking tactically?”

Marcus snorts. “It means, Tom, there may be some hope for you yet. It means you sold yourself before you sold your client. And maybe that’s worth something. Maybe that’s even worth a shadow or two.” He turns back to Aquilifer, stroking her feathers, and after a moment he continues, a wry note in his voice, “And I cant deny that a small part of me wonders, if I do give you the shadow, just what the hell you will do with it. Most likely it will be a complete disaster, but I’m sure it will be interesting to see.”

My mind reels, barely able to believe that my stubbornness led me to do something right for a change. “I’m…good for both of those things, Boss.”

“You are excellent at both of those things. More so than most.” He chuckles. “You know what the problem with a lot of Brujah is?”

I glance at the last of the Anarchs lingering around the Thing, laughing and shoving each other. “We…don’t think?”

“They’re boring. Absolutely, mind-numbingly boring. Predictable beyond all measure. You may or may not be an idiot, and you’re certainly not the most capable vampire I’ve ever seen, but you’re not boring. And I think you are in fact trying to figure out what the hell this is all about.” He levels his gaze at me. “So sure, I’ll show you how the shadows work, and you’ll work out for yourself what they mean, if anything. But I’ll see what you can do with them. And you don’t even have to swear a century of servitude. Because, frankly, I’m almost more interested to see what you’d do without it.”

With that, he walks off, Aquilifer padding along behind him, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I can’t quite believe what just happened. Months ago, I watched him murder my comrades over essentially a misunderstanding, so I know every threat he made against Sophia, Isabella, and my freedom was conceivably real. But…he’s really set all those aside and agreed to share the secrets of his clan with me…for nothing?

Maybe he has valued everything I’ve done…. The thought actually chokes me up a little, but I shake it off. Even if he has, it doesn’t matter, and if I ask him about it directly, he’ll probably just try and murder me again.

The roar of engines draws me back to the present. More Anarchs are starting to leave in whooping groups. For a moment I’m struck by their easy camaraderie, so rare in vampire society, and so fleeting even in my human life. Like anyone, I’ve always yearned to belong but something has always kept me apart, some ill-fitting piece I’ve tried to hide or run away from. But now, here I am, not just choosing to make myself into something different, but fighting for it, risking horror and death to become something Other, something that doesn’t belong anywhere. I chuckle and shake my head. Maybe it’s because I’ve become so used to it.

Or maybe, I realize suddenly, as the motorcycles thunder off into the night, it’s because my greatest sources of power have always come from the unknowns I’ve thrown myself into, for better or for worse.

There’s a rhythmic rasping behind me. I turn to see Slayer drag the boat to a stop and flop into it. “…Okay…man!” he gasps. “I got…your shit!”

I roll my eyes. “Quit panting, drama queen. Load that shit in the truck, we gotta get moving.”

“Okay….” He looks around. “Where are we going?”

I pick up the empty meat trays and toss them in the back, flashing him a smile. “Wherever the hell we want.”

END OF NIGHT

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