3/3/2015

Chris: “Paul is a winner.
Jason: “Paul is on Pluto being devoured by alien space bugs right now.”
Chris: “Right, so…doing pretty well!”

***

PLUTO

So, when we last left off, Dr. vonNatsi and Professor Snodgrass ask Paul and Georgia to give them a moment, that they might settle their differences in the manner of gentlemen. Paul and Georgia head back through the tunnels to find Jawahar and the Void Engineers, Georgia casting a few nervous looks behind her at the two Etherite mages—and wistful looks at the Plutonian space whales/cats—as they disappear into the dark.

They make their way back to the pit room, where new terrifying noises are echoing from some of the side-tunnels—

(Jason: “It’s slathering, gurgling sounds.”
Chris: “Are they horrifying or arousing?”
Everyone: “…”
Jason: “Do I want to know what—no, I don’t want to know—“)

—But no noises come down the main tunnel, the one back to the palace, so Georgia leads them up that. Shadows flicker at the entrance as they approach cautiously and peer out.

The drapes hiding the alcove have been torn down, revealing the grand hall, and the enormous worm now curled inside it. Massive, ten feet in diameter and immeasurably long, it fills the hall with black coils glistening sickly in the golden light. Georgia and Paul freeze, their gaze tracking up the towering body to the head wedged against the ceiling, sightless, but ringed by grasping tentacles and razor-tipped mandibles, all currently clasped onto the limp body of a Void Engineer, shoving it headfirst down the maw. As they watch, the weight of the corpse tears it loose and it falls to the floor, splattering to the marble next to the eviscerated bodies of the other crewmen who followed Georgia here.

(Chris: “Paul tells Georgia, ‘We’re leaving,’ and leaves.”)

Paul grabs for Georgia’s hand, but she hurries into the room, ducking into the shadows under the worm to check on the bodies, quickly discovering that yeah, they’re dead, torn from neck to navel with gouges sliced through their suits all the way to the spine.

(Kara: “Is there any blood left?”
Jason: “…No.”)

The worm’s head swings overhead, tendrils twitching, but it doesn’t seem to perceive her. She hurries back to Paul. “The space-cop has no blood.”

Paul tears his eyes from the thing. “None?”

“Nope.” They look around the room. Despite the obvious carnage that happened here, there’s no blood streaked on the floor either.

The worm’s head bobs low, articulated mandibles grasping at the alcoves, so they duck back into the tunnel, returning to the pit room and trying a new passage for escape. They come upon a round, tiered room, like an amphitheater, but instead of lined with seats, it’s lined with statues.

The statues are all insects. Or, rather, insect-like humanoids, with bulging, facetted eyes and too many arms, carved from a black stone that makes their carapaces seem too real. The figures are carved holding objects, many of them jars and containers of sorts.

Paul leans to Georgia’s ear as they stare. “I really want to go home,” he whispers.

“There’s no place like it,” Georgia agrees without irony, “But we need to find Jawahar first. JAWAHAR!?” she shouts. Her voice echoes through the cavernous space, then continues to echo, muted, as if another tunnel was somewhere nearby.

They fan into the room, looking for secret exits. Georgia climbs to the first tier to grope at the statues, seeing if shoving one activates a trap door, but they’re all rooted firmly to the stone. She scans them, frustrated, but then she realizes, all of their creepy bulging eyes are oriented to the center of the room, staring at a carved flagstone in the center of the floor.

She hops down. “Paul? I think we should stand on the flagstone.”

He stares at the stone. It’s carved with strange glyphs that almost appear to crawl in front of his eyes. “Why do you think that’s a good idea, rather than a terrible idea?”

“Because it will take us somewhere different.”

“Will it? Or will it spontaneously ignite in fire?”

“Well, that seems unlikely,” Georgia scoffs.

“Why would you say its unlikely? Have you not see things tonight that would make you think anything could catch on fire?”

Georgia looks around at the statues. “No?”

“Well, you’ve had a better night than I have,” Paul grumbles.

Georgia approaches the stone without stepping on it. “I’ve seen things that would make me think it might take us to a room with monsters in it.”

“Do you want to go to a room with monsters in it?”

“Yes, if Jawahar is there.”

Paul stares at her, then sighs and approaches the stone. “Fine. But if I catch fire I’m blaming you.”

Georgia grabs his hand and leads hem onto the stone. Nothing happens immediately, but then the stone starts to lower into the ground.

#

FINANCIAL DISTRICT

Anstis stands in front of the plaque commemorating the site of Fort Gunnybags, headquarters for the brief and bloody reign of the Committee of Vigilance. Today, it’s a quiet block across the street from the upscale stores of Embarcadero Center. But after casting some necromancy to peer into the Shadowlands, Anstis sees the area as it once was.

The skyscrapers fade into a long whitewashed building with sandbags piled along the front. Gallows stand behind him, erected in the middle of what will be the intersection. This being the Shadowlands, the sky is grey with smoke and cinders, and hung bodies are strung up from the eaves, twisting slowly in an unfelt wind.

Anstis walks forward, entering the building. Scurrying bits of movement dart through the shadows of the long hallways, but he ignores them. He reaches the center atrium, standing three stories, with railed galleries on each level. He strides to the middle and stops, peering around the sepulchral, ash-streaked space.

In the top gallery, gripping the railing with long fingers and watching him through lank hair, is Carlos.

“We meet again, Captain,” Carlos rasps, his soft voice echoing far more than it should.

Anstis sweeps his hat in a half-bow. “Aye. How goes the realm?”

“Enlightening. Perhaps I could show you some of the things I’ve learned.”

“Perhaps.” Anstis smirks and replaces his hat. “The Tremere’s magic to bring you out of this world appears to have failed. Are you still interested in our deal, to exchange my knowledge of the dead for your power of shadows?”

Carlos’s wan face does not shift, but the gloom in the corners of the room seems to pulse. “Absolutely….”

“Excellent. There are other ways to bring you back, ways fraught with peril. It involves me seeking out secrets, and there will be a cost for bringing forth the effort.”

“What is the cost?”

“Until I am able to perform the ritual, I may require…services. Assistance in the underworld.”

Carlos’s expression turns cagey. “And what nature does this assistance take?”

“I may occasionally require information. Research, and the like.”

“I would be happy to share my research, Captain. No one seemed to enjoy it before, but I find your interest refreshing.” His fingers undulate slowly on the bannister, like a vulture shifting its perch. “And how long do you anticipate this will take?”

Anstis shrugs nonchalantly. “It is difficult to say.”

The darkness pulses closer to Anstis. “Before we begin I suggest you think on that topic awhile,” Carlos’s voice echoes ominously.

(Jason: “It’s risky to threaten a necromancer as a shade, but necessary at times.”)

Despite the shadows undulating closer, Anstis doesn’t break Carlos’s gaze. “Within the next twelve months,” he says calmly.

Deathly silence rings through the room a long moment, then the shadows recede. Carlos nods. “There is a person who may help you in your endeavor. A mentor of sorts to me, long ago.  A man named Elric MacManus.”

“Is he alive?”

“I know not. The events of my…escape…left many questions.” Carlos’s fingers undulate again. “Nonetheless, I have heard nothing I would expect in the event he had been taken. He knows something about the dark arts you’re practicing now, though he would never share them with me. I’m sure you, of course, could be quite persuasive.” Carlos’s wheezes a moment in an approximation of laughter. “When I was last his apprentice, the Great War was just over. The Year of our Lord, nineteen hundred and eighteen. He presumed the identity of an abbot, in an abbey two days march east of Edinburgh—“

(Jason: “Uh, two days march each of Edinburgh would be the North Sea.”)

“—West of Edinburgh. He had the needs of a surgeon who was…creative in his practice.” Carlos chuckles again. “I doubt his proclivities have changed much in the intervening time.”

“Interesting.” Anstis nods slowly, processing this. “If I run into any walls in my research I will try and seek him out.”

“He will try to enslave you,” Carlos says bluntly.

(Jason: “Well that’s a ringing endorsement right there!”)

Anstis begins pacing the room. “There are two things I need to get started. I need something of value from your past life, and your true name.”

(Jason: “NOOOPE! Never give your true name to a Necromancer! If he had it, he could literally remake you into whatever he wanted!”
Me: “So it’d be like a Nigerian asking for your social security and bank numbers?”)

Instantly the shadows are back, swallowing the room and lapping inches from Anstis’s feet. He stops. “Do you take me for a fool!?” Carlos’s rasping voice unexpectedly thunders.

Anstis straightens his coat and shrugs. “If you are not comfortable with this….” He turns to move toward the door.

Slowly the shadows recede. Carlos speaks again, this time with an air of reasonability. “Captain I assure you, you will come out ahead in this arrangement. You do not need to play games with me to assure that.”

Anstis turns back to face the high gallery. “It will make it easier. I can make do without the name, as long as I have the item.”

“Yes, you will.” Carlos is silent a moment before continuing. “Go to Hunter’s Point Shipyard. To the west lie the projects, but in between there will be several rubble piles. You will find several hatches barely cleared of the rubble, hatches to tanks once used to house gasoline. In the west-most tank, at the far end, is a collection of items. Amongst them is  surgeons kit. That will be adequate for your purposes.”

Anstis nods, pleased, and extends his mind in preparation to end the ritual, then stops. Something is watching them, another spirit by the feel of it, but one of significant power, and somewhere out of sight. He slowly scans the room. “We’re being watched.”

Carlos sneers and glares into his own shadows. “Sparrows!” he barks, “Find the intruder!”

The rustling sounds Anstis heard when he entered stir again, soft as leaves in the wind. Still unseen, they fan out through the building and out into the ashen street outside.

Taking this as his cue, Anstis sweeps his hat off in another bow. “Excellent. I thank you for your time. We shall speak again.”

Carlos nods once. “I look forward to it,” he rasps softly, almost a whisper.

With that, Anstis ends the ritual. The dead building and its haunted lord melt away around him, leaving the pirate standing in an alley, staring at the blank wall of a skyscraper.

#

PLUTO

The stone platform descends down a long shaft, unseen gears groaning, then finally drops into a hallway and stops in front of carved stone door. Paul and Georgia step off the platform and approach. Bass relief carvings cover the door, showing a frieze of the same beetle-men slicing open skulls of different creatures and holding the contents aloft. Some of the creatures appear to be humans.

Georgia traces her hand across the stone. “Oh, this is a laboratory!” she says brightly.

“Wonderful,” Paul grumbles. “What are the beetle people?”

“Plutonian scientists, obviously.”

He scowls and thrusts a hand at the nearest macabre scene. “See, now, when I read this, I see, ‘Beetle people will cut open your head.’ “

Georgia glares and points to the same carving. “I see, ‘Beetle people are doing science here.’”

“It doesn’t bother you that they’re cutting open people’s skulls?!”

“Should it?” She peers at the victims again. “I mean, look at them, these are probably volunteers.”

Paul stares a long moment. “…Why is it I’ve been with Dr. vonNatsi all night and you’re still the crazy one?”

Forcing himself to ignore the carvings, Paul examines the door to find a way to open it. He discovers two vaguely hand-shaped indentations on both sides of the door. Paul places his had in one indentation and gestures to Georgia to take the opposite side. The moment she touches it, the door groans and grinds open.

Inside, ironically as Georgia predicted, is what appears to be a laboratory. Equipment-covered tables fill the floor, much like in Dr. vonNatsi’s lab, though this equipment is less culinary in nature than his contraptions. Shelves line the walls, sagging under the weight of countless jars filled with strange fluids. Strange alien machinery is also scattered about.

And cages. Large, heavy metal cages are shoved between the tables and against the walls. Most of them contain corpses, too decayed to identify clearly, though all of them have the tops of their heads lopped off. They move through the room quietly, peering through the heavy bars, and at the back of the room, in one of the largest cages, they find Jawahar, curled up and unresponsive.

(Jim: “Jawahar is really good at being captured.”)

Paul gropes for his wrist through the bars, sagging in relief as he holds it. “He’s alive.”

“Well that’s good.” Georgia scans the room. “Don’t know why he’d volunteer for this, though.”

They jostle the cage. It appears to be one solid piece of cast metal, with no door, but they realize it’s placed on the floor, not bolted into it. Working together, they hoist it up and topple it over. Jawahar doesn’t wake. They pick the mage up, hoisting him awkwardly between them, then carry him out. As they approach the door, they can hear the grinding of the elevator platform and hurry, assuming it’s lifting back to the entrance shaft.

They stop as they clear the door. The elevator isn’t moving up, it’s moving back down. Paul an Georgia quickly dash to the other side of it, hiding in the shadows as the open platform drops below the ceiling and descends to the floor.

Two living beetle-creatures are standing on it, clicking and chittering to each other, draped with liquid-filled jars tied on rough ropes. Paul pulls Georgia further into the shadows. The platform stops with a heavy thunk and the beetle-men walk toward the lab, hesitating as they see the doors standing open. They step through carefully, then freeze as they see Jawahar’s cage overturned on the far side of the room.

Paul gestures Georgia onto the platform, both dragging Jawahar forward as silently as possible. The platform starts to lift, but the beetle-men turn as the grinding echoes through the hallway.

The one closest to them drops its jars and lunges at them, screeching like torn souls and grasping at them with razor appendages. Paul drops Jawahar, stepping forward to punch it in the general region of the throat. The other grabs Georgia while she’s struggling with Jawahar, gripping her skull in its jointed claws….

….And slowly tearing it open like wet clay.

The pain—and the mere sight of this act, on Paul’s part—sends them both into a frenzy.

#

MARCUS’S SHADOWSPACE

I lift a placating hand. “Boss, I can explain….”

His face, already serious, suddenly falls. Then his eyes narrow dangerously. “…Explain what?”

Silence swirls around us like the shadows. I stare at the armor-clad boy…then understanding hits me like a Panzerfaust. I close my eyes. “So…you didn’t summon me because of the stuff on the bridge?”

“Tom….” His voice is laced with warning. “What did you do? Do not make me find out myself.”

“I…imagine you’re going to find out soon anyway.”

“Yes, I am, because you’re going to tell me.”

I open my eyes. He hasn’t moved, but somehow the dark shards forming his armor—and his sword—look darker. I take an airless breath. “Sophia and I were trying to get to Berkeley to find Leeland, but we ran into the National Guard on the bridge. They…tried to stop us.”

He stares at me. “And…?”

“They…didn’t.”

He reaches under his helmet to rub at his temples and gestures in a go on motion.  I give him a summary of the incident on the bridge, Panzerfäuste and all, my hopes sinking with every word. This is exactly the sort of thing he warned me against after Monterey, but his face remains flat as I lay out the details of my damnation.

After I finish, he’s quiet a long moment. “…So the National Guard tried to stop you….”

“That’s right.”

“And in response, you massacred them with rocket fire and escaped?”

I nod slowly. Maybe if I beg, he’ll let me stop the car before he kills me, so I don’t crash and kill Sophia too.

He continues to stare. “…So what’s the bad news?”

I blink.

Marcus stares into the depths of his shadowblade. “Tom, did you massacre an entire town? Did you destroy vital pieces of the city’s infrastructure? Did you piss off enormously powerful Kindred I’m going to have to clean the mess up for?”

I run over his list in my mind, twice, just to be sure. No…but the fireball was visible for miles, I’m sure it’ll get back to Bell.”

“Let me worry about Bell,” he grumbles. “And as for your werewolf, they live violent lives, I don’t doubt she’s had worse this week. So it sounds to me like you put the rockets to good use.”

My confusion must be clear on my face, because he sighs and continues. “Look, Tom, I appreciate this may be shocking to you, but they stood in your way and you killed them. I don’t see the problem. Why, do you?”

I watch him carefully as I consider my answer. Honestly, I’m not sure. On the one hand, I simply did what every action movie taught me is the appropriate thing to do. But on the other hand, technically Monterey happened because Stanley and his men stood up to me, as did all the cops I found littered across Cannery Row when I was done. Both instances of large-scale murder, one done by raw instinct and the other by conscious choice, and somehow the latter is more excusable?

In that moment, Marcus’s alienness hits home in a way it hasn’t yet before. Maybe it’s the vampire, or maybe it’s the Roman, but I see with surprising clarity the centuries that separate us, and how they’ve made him something very different from the boy he appears to be.

Given enough time, I wonder what I might become…. “I’m…still figuring things out,” I mutter.

“Well. To business, then.” He flips his sword and rests it in front of him. “Do you still have that blade of yours?”

“Yes…?” I grope at my belt but apparently it hasn’t followed me into this mental space.

“Good. Strange that the Tremere had that. I mean, not that they had it at all, but rather that they were all massacred, yet no-one thought to draw it.” He flips his shadow-gladius again. “But no matter. The point isn’t swordplay, the point is the shadows. See, this isn’t a sword, this is…nothingness, beaten into the shape of a blade by an act of will. For this next experiment, your goal isn’t to try and defeat me in swordplay—we both know how that would end—your goal is to disarm me.”

I consider making a joke how “dis-arming” has been going around a lot lately, but decide to let it slide.

Marcus gestures to the darkness around us. “You want to command shadows? The term is very, very, very literal. You must command them, they will not act simply because you ask them politely. They act because you possess the will and the right to command them. Do you have the will and the right to command a shadow to act?”

I stare at the shadow, somehow a force simultaneously raw power and nothingness, and I can’t even begin to conceive how to “command” either. “I can try.”

“You can certainly try, if you want to be cut to pieces by the shadow you will not be able to command. Command is not a matter of trying, it is a matter of having the right and exercising it.” He lifts his sword. “This is my weapon, I have forged it with an act of will. If I matched my will against yours in this matter, what do you think would happen?”

My mind suddenly flashes to when he pulled his sword—his real sword—out of solid ground in the catacombs of Alcatraz. “I…imagine yours is a little stronger?”

“You’d imagine correctly, but it’s not a matter of strength so much. You see a shadow doesn’t really exist. It’s just the absence of light. What we do is command something to come from nothingness. A sort of incarnated nothingness, if you will.” He gestures vaguely. “The specifics are debated, by persons more interested in semantics than me.”

(Me: “ABYSTISCISM!”)

“What I’m interested in,” Marcus continues, “Is the practicalities of it. You see the shadows can take any form. We beat them into forms we’re used to, but the base fact is the shadow doesn’t have to be anything at all. It can be anything it wants to.” Suddenly the sword extends four-times its length and slaps me across the face. Before I can react, it’s back to normal gladius size. Marcus smirks. “You understand, perhaps? You want to command the shadows? Well it’s time to simply command them. Disarm me. Or face the consequences of me being armed.”

He stands back, watching me patiently. My eyes dart around, looking for a trick, for inspiration, for anything—

(Me: “—Okay, out of game, what do I do?”
Jim: “In-game what do you do?”
Jason: “Yeah?”
Me: “Dammit!!”)

I shift nervously. Pretty much anything I try is going to make me feel like an idiot, but I did ask for this, so might as well suck it up. With another deep breath, try to imagine tugging at the shadows, drawing them over us like a veil, enough to hide me while I lunge at Marcus’s sword.

Nothing happens.

“You’re overthinking it Tom. It’s a matter of will, as I said. Exercise, and command. Or shall I provide incentive?” He twists the sword threateningly.

I close my eyes and try again, pouring more focus into the act.

(Me: “Can…I spend a willpower?”
Jason: “Yes, and roll willpower as well.”
Me: “That’s…current or total?”
Jason: “Total.”
Me: *rolls* “…Umm….”
Jason: “That’s a double botch! Oh, joyous day!”
Julian: “Never say Colleen never did anything to make you happy.”)

Willing away all thoughts but my connection with the darkness, I grab at the shadows with my mind, trying to tug them toward me—

They tug back.

Darkness falls instantly. My mind reels with a disorienting sense of whirling, as if tossed through the air, though physically I don’t move, I can’t move. Cold worse than anything I’ve felt, worse than Marcus’s shadows, cuts through me like razors through mist. As it pierces, it also drains, drawing a fog behind my eyes to match the one in front of my face.

An instinctive, animal part of me chokes for breath against the vacuum and pushes back, trying to create a space. A pocket clears, enough to see my hand in front of my face, but the dark still surrounds me. There’s no sign of Marcus. I try to move through the gloom, but my bubble of safety wobbles tenuously, letting in leaks of shadow that lick at the edges of my consciousness, rasping away thought and life. I struggle to hold it away, but it’s like fighting a leaden shroud, a shroud I’m gradually realizing wants to devour me—

Suddenly the darkness reveals Marcus in front of me, still armored, his shadow-sword replaced by his real one. He stares through the gloom, serious concern etched on his young face, but though he’s looking my direction, his eyes aren’t focused on me. “Tom!?” he calls into the dark, turning slowly, his voice sounding miles away.

I have no idea what’s happening, this doesn’t seem like part of the test, but his sword glints in front of me, just inches away, so as he turns, I lunge forward to grab it.

The moment I touch his hand, he whirls, instantly twisting around to grab my arm with vice strength. I catch a brief glimpse of his face—concern replaced by fear—then BAM! Streetlights and warmth hit me and I’m back in the El Camino.

“Tom?” Sophia’s staring at me, one hand reached hesitantly toward my arm.

I blink, disoriented, but luckily we’re stopped at a light. “Uh, yeah….?”

“Tom you okay? You were talking and then you zoned out mid-sentence.”

“Yeah, sorry, I just kinda…drifted off for a second.”

She frowns and sits back. “Not a good thing when driving.”

“Yeah I know, but it’s late, you know how that is. What time is it?” I peer at the dash. Assuming the car clock is correct, it’s about three am, just enough time to hit up Leeland before holing up for the day—

My phone rings. After a quick glance to check for cops, I answer it while driving.

“TOM!?” It’s Marcus.

I glance at Sophia. “Hey, Boss….” I say slowly. Her eyes go wide.

“Tom are you alright??”

“Yeah I’m back in the car—“

“What in JUPITER’S NAME did you do!?”

I pause. “I…did the thing…?”

“Whatever it was you just did, don’t do that again! You have no idea how close that was!”

So it wasn’t part of the test. “…Why?” I ask suspiciously.

“You…pulled something into the mental space I created. Don’t ask me what, I don’t know!”

The ghost of crushing cold, the sense of being devoured, suddenly washes over me. I shudder. “Is it gone?”

“Well the space itself is gone so I should hope so! If you start feeling like you need to devour all light in the universe, you will tell me, won’t you?”

I avoid Sophia’s questioning gaze. “Yeah, I’ll try to keep that in mind,” I mutter.

Marcus grumbles. “Where are you?”

“Going to Leeland’s.”

“Alright. Well try and stay out of the range of National Guardsmen, if you can.”

I glance along the beaten dash of the El Camino. “Well, we’re literally more low-profile now.”

“I’m sure that will last about five minutes. Where are the rest of your confederates?”

I consider the question a moment, realizing I don’t even have a snarky answer. “You know, I don’t know. The pirate keeps trying to call me but I’m usually a little busy.”

“Well I would take his calls if I were you. There’s matters going on you should be abreast of, as should I.”

(Me: “UUURG, fine I’ll take the hook!”)

“In the meantime,” Marcus continues, “I need to take some time to figure out what just happened, because you did something that should not have been possible. The mere fact you were able to do it may be a positive sign but I’ll have to reserve judgement on that, at least until I’m sure it’s not about to devour your soul from the inside.”

“…Oh,” is all I can say.

“You tore a shadow-horror out of the Abyss and threw it into your own mind, Tom, I would take this a little more seriously if I were you!”

“I’m…sorry?”

He grumbles again, this time in Latin. “This is what I get for dealing with Brujah….” he says finally, then hangs up. I drop my phone in the cupholder and go back to driving, focusing on the empty neighborhood streets to keep from dwelling on whatever the hell just almost killed me.

After a few moments, Sophia speaks up softly, “What did he want?”

I glance over. She’s hunched back in her seat, jacket drawn around her, watching me warily. I sigh. As much as I want to avoid discussing my connections with Marcus, lying to her about it is probably worse. “So…we’re kinda doing this thing. He’s teaching me some stuff, but it’s in these, like, mental out-of-time bursts. Which is why I keep zoning out.”

She frowns. “What kind of stuff?”

“Dark. Stuff.” I say awkwardly.

“For vampires that doesn’t really narrow it down.” She rolls her eyes and turns to the window. “It’s ok, you don’t have to tell me,” she mutters.

I sigh again. Not that I have any loyalty for keeping vampire secrets, but she has told me so much about werewolves it’s only fair I return the favor. “So, I guess you’ve noticed that not all vampires can do the same stuff?

She looks over. “Yeah, you have, like, tribes.”

“Right. But we can actually exchange skills between the clans under certain conditions.”

“Like Gifts?”

I hesitate, momentarily thrown by that capitalized G. “…Sure? Though these exchanges usually come with a price.”

She looks back to the window. “Most gifts do.”

Wow. “…Right. So Marcus has been teaching me his clan’s specialties, which is the…” I grope for a good way to describe it, “…Shadowbullshit.”

“…The darkness stuff?” She goes very still, turning to me wide-eyed. “Tom, I really hope you know what you’re doing.”

The look on her face is an echo of Marcus’s when he was searching for me in the gloom. I turn back to the road. “Well, if I don’t, I’m sure I’ll find out.”

#

PLUTO

Georgia wakes up to find herself back in the beetle-creature laboratory, in the same cage as the still-unconscious Jawahar. Hisses and clicks fill the room, underlaid by a sickeningly wet organic noise. She peers through the bars and sees two of the beetle-men bent over a table, chattering to each other as they work.

What they’re working on is Paul, and what they’re doing is dissecting him, taking organs out of a cracked-open chest cavity and examining them one by one.

(Chris: “Are they putting them back after they’re done examining them?”
Jason: “No, they’re putting them in the canopic jars.”
Kara: “One of the bugmen is now on fire.”)

A ball of flame strikes the one facing away from her, hitting a joint at the top of the neck. The creature shrieks as fire cascades down its back. Its many limbs flail, flinging jars around the room, then it falls to the floor, smoke leaking out from cracks in its exoskeleton.

The other bug looks up, looks at Georgia, then runs the fuck out the room.

“Paul?” Georgia cries, shoving at her bars.

Paul is bolted to the table with heavy metal bands, and unfortunately has no lungs at the moment—although, fortunately, this also prevents him from screaming in pain—so taps a hand against the wood in reply.

Georgia struggles with the cage but it’s too heavy to lift on her own. She grabs Jawahar’s arm, carefully “borrows” some blood and pours that into extra strength, groping at the bottom for purchase. She breaks a hand in the exertion, but the sight of Paul torn apart on the table urges her on.

Paul, meanwhile, is able to reach one of his pockets and pulls out his phone. He smears some blood on it—luckily he has plenty at hand—and lifts it to type, one-thumbed, telling it to call Tesseract.

After a few moments, there’s a soft chime, and a familiar spinning logo of a pulsing multidimensional cube appears on the screen. “Greetings, Creator,” a soft female voice says.

Where…am…I? Paul types.

You are located on the dwarf planet Pluto, Creator.”

In…what…universe?

CRASH, Georgia finally wills enough strength to flip the cage, then runs over to Paul and tugs at the bands of metal holding him down. They’re too tight, so she starts grabbing organs from the jars scattered around on the floor, shoving them back into his chest cavity.

Paul finally heals enough of his organs together to get a working diaphragm. “I…hate….everything,” is the first thing he rasps.

Georgia pauses, half a spleen still in her hand. “Thats…awfully broad. I mean, do you hate puppies?”

Suddenly, Jawahar stirs. He sits up blearily, adjusting the glasses on his face. Georgia beams at him, hands covered in blood.  “Jawahar! Welcome!”

The mage stares around, confusion morphing into horror. “Oh god, where are we?”

“…Hell,” Paul gasps. Jawahar looks at him and screams.

Georgia waves Jawahar down, shushing him. “It’s ok. I killed the monsters, but we’re still in their lab. This is my friend Paul.”

Paul lifts one hand weakly and waves. “We’re doing…just great,” he gurgles. “I’m here…to rescue you.”

Jawahar stares as he hauls himself to his feet. “Wha…what is he?”

Georgia says, “a vampire,” at the same time Paul says, “uncomfortable.”

Jawahar stares. “No matter,” he mumbles finally. He walks to the table, examines the metal bands a moment, then inscribes hermetic sigils into the wood. There’s a hiss, then the bands release with a click. Georgia helps Paul to his feet—or, rather, what’s left of them, since they seem to only have 1.23 achilles tendons between them. Paul stumbles, but she catches him on her shoulder.

“Need…to heal…need blood….” Paul wheezes.

Jawahr backs up, one hand raised warningly. “Do not even try it….”

Paul and Georgia stare at him. “Try…healing?”

“I am the only living person in this room, I have seen these movies!” Jawahar yells.

“You need to watch…better movies. This…is a terrible movie,” Paul gasps.

Georgia pats Paul’s shoulder. “Jawahar, it’s ok, he’s not going to bite you.”

Jawahar stares at them, looks around the lab, then sighs. “You’re right, I’m sorry.”

“Yes,” Georgia nods. “Although, you probably should know, while you were asleep I took a tiny bit of your blood.”

Meanwhile, Paul has resumed trying to communicate with Tesseract. He holds his phone up to his ear to hear her reply over Jawahar’s outraged yells.

“You are located in a shardrealm, the memetic polyreality Yuggoth.”

Paul looks up. “Does the name Yuggoth mean anything to anyone?”

Jawahar and Georgia stop arguing and look at him blankly. Paul shrugs and puts the phone away.

“Well, we really should go check on Dr. vonNatsi,” Georgia says and heads toward the elevator, stumbling under Paul’s weight. Jawahar hesitates, then helps her, muttering to himself in Hindi. They make it to the platform, but stepping on it does nothing, even when they collect at the very center.

Georgia peers up the shaft. “Jawahar, can you get us up there?”

“Maybe…I can try deleting the gravity.” He crouches and starts tracing sigils in the dirt. “One moment…I haven’t done this since third-year term papers.”

“Where did you…go to school?” Paul rasps.

“Horizon, where else?” Jawahar says as he works.

“He’s a sparkle-scientist,” Georgia announces proudly.

Jawahar shoves his glasses up his nose and stands back up. “I am a member of the Order of Hermes Trismegistus, miss, so if you would please have some consideration for the magical—“

(Jim: “Wait a minute, isn’t it Pluto gravity?”
Chris: “Oh yeah, we can just jump up.”
Jason: “Oh right, I keep forgetting.”)

Jawahar trails off as Georgia leaps up the shaft, carrying Paul, then sighs and follows.

#

BERKELEY

Sophia and I are quiet the rest of the way to Berkeley. I head into the hills, pulling up outside the Provost’s house near four am. The area looks a lot quieter since the last time we were here, when we battled with Flagg. As we get out of the car, Sophia stares a moment toward the glade where I found her torn open with silver shot. I don’t say anything. I wait by the hood, one hand resting lightly on my sword, until she joins me.

“So, who is this guy?” she asks as we crunch up the gravel path toward the house. “I didn’t really get a chance to meet him last time.”

“He’s the Baron of Berkeley, but he’s also some big name at the University. A dean or something,” I say.

“So, he’s some high-roller? Should I be worried?”

I snort. “Oh, no, he’s a Toreador, and an idiot.”

She considers this. “Isn’t Paul a Toreador?”

I sigh in concession. “Yeah, he has his moments, but he’s not so much a fighter.”

(Chris: “Paul is a winner.
Jason: “Paul is on Pluto being devoured by alien space bugs right now.”
Chris: “Right, so…doing pretty well!”)

The quaint little house is quiet as we approach, but the lights inside are on. I knock heavily. After a few moments, I see ripples of movement through the stained glass lining the door.

“Do you have any idea what time it is!?” The door wrenches open, revealing Leeland, wearing an old-timey long nightshirt, bobble-hat and everything. I half expect him to be holding a candelabra and looking for Jacob Marley.

Leeland peers at me. “Lytton? Elementary politeness is to call and announce that you’re coming!”

“Yeah, well, we were in a car chase with the National Guard so my hands were occupied at the time.”

“Who’s ‘we’—“ He stops as he sees Sophia behind me. His face goes as white as his nightshirt, and he slams the door.

“Nice guy,” Sophia says in the silence.

I sigh and take out Glitch. “Yeah. You probably don’t remember from last time—“ I overhand the sword and thunk it through the door. It instantly bursts into flame, eliciting a muted scream from beyond. “—But he tried to convince Paul and I to drain you of blood, and use you for weird ritual shit.” Slowly I drag the sword down the wood, slicing it in smoldering-two.

“I don’t remember that at all,” Sophia says calmly.

“Yeah, you were passed out on the couch.” Once I reach the ground I remove the sword and kick the door. The hinge side twists with a squeal, but the far-side clatters into the living room beyond. “Hello! Leeland? We need to talk to you about a statue!”

What the fuck is wrong with you!?” his voice echoes from the hall. “Get that goddamn werewolf away from me!”

I spread my arms, Glitch hissing through the air, as Sophia and I walk in. “She’s already been here, son, so you’d better make up for how you treated her last time!”

There’s a shriek, and a crash, followed by footsteps running deeper into the house. I head down the main hall, Glitch held before me.

As I approach the door to the kitchen, something flies around the corner at head level. One of Leeland’s larping weapons, an axe. There’s a flash as I parry, and Leeland staggers back, the axe blade cut almost in half. Sophia and I follow him into the kitchen.

Leeland drops the axe and holds up his hands. “Look, I don’t want any trouble!”

“Good, then why don’t you have a seat. Have a seat, right there.” I point to a stool.

Leeland plops onto it. “Why are you doing this to me?”

Glitch is now some sort of metal, so I shove it back through my belt, keeping it clearly visible, and lean nonchalantly on the counter. “So this guy Jean up in Napa sent us down here looking for this statue—“

“What!? How does he know about that?”

“I don’t know, but apparently every werewolf in Marin—minus the two we killed—are looking for it too, so—“

Leeland’s hands, folded in his nightgown’ed lap, start to shake. “You killed two werewolves?”

I look over my shoulder at Sophia. She gives Leeland an apologetic smile and nods.

He stares between us. “I don’t understand. What do you want with the statue?”

I don’t want it, but the Talons are going to tear apart the entire Bay Area till they get it so I figure we’d better get it before they do.”

“…The Talons?” Leeland whispers. “They want the statue?”

I glance at the windows, looking out into the deep-wooded hillsides. “Yeah, they’re probably on their way now, cause I’ve seen this movie before.”

Leeland leaps to his feet, almost sending his bobble-hat flying. “They’re coming here!?”

“I don’t know, maybe! Where’s the statue?”

“It’s not here!”

I brace my hands on the granite and lean forward. “So where is—“ I hesitate, then glare. “Are you going to tell me it belongs in a museum?

A squeak leaks from Leeland’s open mouth. “…I thought it did…. Everton just dropped it off, he didn’t have time to say what it was! I left it at the archeology department!”

“Where’s the archaeology department?”

“Kroeber Hall, down on campus, but there’s no one there now!”

“Good, so you can take us there.” I grab his arm and start leading him back through the house.

“Wh-What about her!?” he sputters, waving his free arm at Sophia.

I stop. “What about her?”

She’s a werewolf!!!”

Sophia shrugs. I shoot her an exasperated glance, then pull Leeland to my face. “Would you rather have one werewolf now, or seventy werewolves later?” I hiss.

He strains back against my grip. “There’s seventy of them?”

“I don’t know, maybe!”

He groans and slumps. I let him fall to the floor, where he curls up in a crouch. “Why does this keep happening to me…? I just wanted to run a university, I didn’t want werewolves on this campus!”

“Well maybe you should be less species-ist about your admission policies.” I drag him back to his feet and thrust him toward the door. “Our car’s outside, get in the back.”

#

PLUTO

Georgia and Jawahar, supporting Paul between them, finally arrive back at the pit room, but it’s not empty. Several Void Engineers are there, including the captain, all splattered with blood and streaks of black ichor, and all with guns drawn. Jawahar freezes, but Georgia throws her arms up excitedly. “Hey guys! You found us!”

“You again,” the captain growls, but he’s not staring at her…he’s staring at Jawahar. Jawahar returns the glare warily. Finally the captain turns to Georgia. “Look, can you get us off this damn planet?”

“With a lot of blood yes.”

The captain throws his arms toward the dank walls and abyssal pit surrounding them.“Do you even have the first idea where we are?”

“We’re on…Yuggoth,” Paul wheezes. “I don’t know…what that means…though.”

The Void Engineers suddenly stir nervously. The captain’s gaze hardens. “I do. Yuggoth is in one of the red-list polyrealities, let’s put it that way.”

Georgia shrugs and peers into the tunnels. “Great, well, if we can find Dr. vonNatsi, maybe he can help—“

Who the hell is Dr. vonNatsi?

At that moment, a strange noise echoes down the hallway leading to the whale/cat cavern. It…sounds like a bell, a single clear-pitched ring. Everyone stops, stares, glances at each other, then slowly make their way down the tunnel, guns—or whatever weapons on-hand—at the ready.

The tunnel opens into the cavern, now lit by sourceless bright light. Plutonian space whales/cats ring the space, perched haphazardly on ledges and stalagmites, but all eyes in the room—human, vampire, and space-whale—are immediately drawn to the proceedings in the middle of the cavern.

A boxing ring has appeared on the rocky floor, with padded ropes and everything. In the middle of the ring are Dr. vonNatsi and Professor Snodgrass, appropriately dressed in  boxing gloves and baggy trousers—khaki for Snodgrass, labcoat-white for vonNatsi.

Rather than fighting, though, they are both sitting on folding chairs, bent over a low table, staring intently at what can only be a chess-set. As Georgia and the rest of the group watch, vonNatsi carefully picks up a bishop in his enormous-gloved hand and moves it across the board.

To one side of the ring, Reginald stands patiently, a folded towel over his arm. He consults a timepiece, then removes a small mallet from his coat and sharply raps a red metal bell bolted to the pole. The same clear DING! they heard earlier echoes through the cavern. Both Etherites immediately stand up, the table and chairs disappear, and they fall into rousting boxing postures.

Paul leans toward the Void Engineer captain. “These men…are crazy,” he rasps.

“What…are…they doing?” the captain asks slowly, face still agape.

“They’re dueling,” Georgia chides, then walks over to the butler. “I say, Reginald, how many innings are left?”

Reginald bows politely. “This is the 12th inning, madam.”

“And how many remain?”

“This is a matter of personal honor, madam. They shall box for as many innings as are required.”

“Ah yes.” Georgia watches a moment.  The mages dance around each other jabbing occassionally, but no strikes land, or in fact even come close to making contact. Georgia frowns. “Remind me of the rules, Reginald, if there’s outside interference, does the duel have to be repeated?”

The butler glances down, afronted. “That would be most unorthodox, madam!”

Paul detaches himself from Jawahar’s support and wobbles over. “If it’s such a long match…surely there is a provision for providing food and beverages to the spectators?”

Reginald nods. “Yes, sir. Will you have AB-positive or O-negative?” He folds the towel over his shoulder and rolls up his sleeves, offering both wrists. “The lady may select first, of course, sir.”

(Jason: “You know what the irony of this is? The duel these two are fighting is the least weird thing they have ever done.”
Chris: “It’s also the least weird thing I’ve seen this night.”
Jason: “No, what I mean is this is a real sport .”
Kara: “Ooh!”
Jason: “Chess-boxing is an absolutely real sport that is competed in. You box a round, and then you play chess for I think three minutes, and then you box a round. You may win by either knockout or checkmate. It’s considered to be the ultimate test of a man, in that you must be physically fit and mentally fit. And, of course, be able to be mentally fit while being punched in the head.”)

Paul and Georgia are able to take a surprising amount of blood from Reginald, enough that Paul can start to stitch himself back together. When they finish, Reginald excuses himself, rolls his sleeves back down, and hits the bell again. Snodgrass and vonNatsi pause mid-strike and -duck, respectively, the table and chairs reappear, and they sit once again, Snodgrass reaching for a rook.

Georgia applauds. “Very good, Doctor, very good!”

“I shall have him!” vonNatsi yells, staring intently at the board. “Mein bishop is in position, und he has no counter for mein jab!”

Snodgrass slams his rook down. “Most unorthodox!!!

(Jim: “Yay, we got Jason to talk to himself!”
Me: “In his most outlandish voices!”
Kara: “The only thing better would be if Emperor Norton were involved in this conversation.”
Jason: “Oh, good, cause this conversation needs more insanity.”
Chris: “I summon Norton.”
Jason: “You can’t.”
Chris: “Thank god.”)

Paul, meanwhile, hobbles back over to the Void Engineer captain, who stares with obvious disgust at the traces of blood still on Paul’s face. “So, what is this…meme thing? AdviceAnimals, or whatever?” Paul asks.

The captain’s gaze narrows. “Memetic polyreality, a reality with its own consensus, generated by some sort of cultural construct.”

“Okay, so how do we get out of here?”

“I haven’t the first idea, I don’t have access to any of my files. They’re on my ship, which that lunatic,” he points at Snodgrass, “Blew half-apart with sonic canons!”

“It’s ok, we’re going to kill him after the duel!” Georgia calls.

You shall do no such thing!” Snodgrass roars as his knight takes a pawn.

The captain glares at them then turns back to Paul. “We can’t access our files without my ship, and we can’t breach the walls of this shardrealm to get out of here without those files, so if you have any ideas, I’m happy to hear them.”

“Do you have colleagues who could help?”

“Yes, but not in this reality,” the captain grumbles.

“Well, could you email them?”

The captain stare. “They don’t have an email address! This isn’t the Department of Energy!”

Paul shrugs. “IM handle, then? Maybe a fax number?”

The captain closes his eyes and takes a long breath. “A subspace communicator might be able to breach the realms. Do you have a subspace communicator?”

Paul hesitates. “Actually I think I do, yes.” He pulls out his phone. The Tesseract logo is still pulsing on his screen. “Tesseract, you’re going to be talking to…I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

The captain folds his arms. “Sterling.”

(Cue two minutes of yelling, “LANA!” and “DANGER ZONE!”)

Nathaniel Sterling,” the captain clarifies, glaring at the fourth wall.

Paul nods. “Tesseract, you’re going to be speaking with Mr. Sterling, he’ll help us out.”

The logo whirls faster. “I do not know Nathaniel Sterling,” she says calmly. The logo suddenly winks out of sight and the screen goes black.

Paul pokes at the screen. “Tesseract…? Hmm. I don’t think she likes you.”

“Who the hell is she?”

“Corporate spirit,” Paul says, putting the phone away.

Captain Stirling scowls and turns back to the ring. “Then I can imagine why.”

Snodgrass and vonNatsi, meanwhile, have switched back into boxing mode, but their style continues to be heavy on the butterly, light on the bee. Their chess skills, incidentally, aren’t much better. Paul looks across this room full of mages, all of whom ironically powerless to help themselves, then suddenly gets an idea.

(Chris: *throws up arms* “Summon!”
Jason: *hesitant* “…Who are you going to summon?”
Chris: “…The Way Dude!
Everyone: “Ooooooooooooooooh!”)

Paul Summons the Virtual Adept and waits, watching the fight. After a few moments, a subtle smell of patchouli washes over him from behind. “Duuuude…why have you come here?” a calm voice intones.

Everyone jumps and turns. The Way Dude is there, with his fringed suede vest and rose colored glasses, smiling through his grey beard, hands folded peacefully. Georgia looks surprised. Sterling starts cursing under his breath.

“Hey man,” Paul claps him companionably on the shoulder. “I actually was trying to save her,” he points at Georgia, who curtsies, “But I have no idea where I am.”

The Way Dude nods sagely. “That is why you are lost.”

Paul grins. “Right!?”

Georgia comes over. “Hello Sparkly-man!”

The Way Dude regards her seriously. “Have you discovered the Way?”

She thinks. “…No.”

“Do you seek to find the Way?”

“…I don’t know.

He’s silent another moment, then grins and nods at her. “That is the beginning of wisdom, and the starting point of the Way.”

“So,” Paul continues, “I have no clue where I am, but I know I am not somewhere where I have a clue where I am.”

The Way Dude strokes his beard. “That…is wisdom. The only way to be sane is to let go of sanity, and the only way to be found is to let go of place.”

Paul stares around the cavern, at the stalactites and the spacemen, at the cats and the chess, and considers this. “So, one time I went into the redwood forest and I didn’t eat for a week. I got really lost and didn’t know where I was, just like how I don’t know where I am now.”

The Way Dude nods sagely. “In becoming lost, did you discover truth?”

“I did.”

“Did you find yourself?”

“Several times. Sometimes at the same time.”

His grin widens. “And now you have become lost.”

“So I need to find myself,” Paul breathes excitedly.

“And…the Way.”

Behind the two men, unseen by either of them, Jawahar and Captain Sterling simultaneously face-palm.

#

BERKELEY

Leeland sits in the back of the El Camino for the ride down the hill. Sophia volunteers to sit back there too, one of the Panzerfäuste trained on him, to ensure he doesn’t jump out. Not that we couldn’t catch him, we’re just tired of running around tonight.

A few blocks into the drive my phone rings. It’s Anstis. I don’t want to talk to him, but Boss did say to find out whats going on with him….

(Chris: “And it would violate Tom’s code not to do what Marcus says. Or implies.”)

I answer. “What?”

“Mr. Lytton, good to hear from you! Glad you’re still with us!”

I focus on the road. “What do you want?”

“I have news.”

I glance at my passengers in the back, tucked up against Vera and the rest of the rockets. “Well it cant be any more exciting than the bullshit I’ve been dealing with tonight—“

“I know where your sister is being held.”

The car slowly rolls to a stop at the next intersection. It takes me a few seconds to even realize. “…Well. I was wrong.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow at Helgi’s, at the Semtex exchange,” Anstis growls.

My rush of conflicting emotions suddenly scatters like fish. “What? I can’t go back to Alameda, I’ve got other shit to do, son!”

“Well if your sister’s not important, then I guess we can put it off.”

I close my eyes. “…What time?”

“Ten pm.” With that, he hangs up. Hope, concern, and dread twist through me, but I ignore them and go back to focusing on the road.

It’s late, so I’m able to find a parking spot near the main part of campus. I leave most of my weaponry behind, but I gesture for Sophia to grab two of the rockets for herself. Grinning, she quickly rigs up a way to secure them to her back with her bag strap. Leeland watches us sullenly, then leads us across the street to an unadorned flat-fronted building at the edge of campus grounds.

“What in the world do you need with this thing anyway?” Leeland mumbles as he fiddles with his keys.

“I don’t know, but hopefully we can get some more information from it before the Talons do whatever the hell they’re planning with it.”

Leeland slams the key in the lock and jerks the handle till the door opens. “Goddamn Everton…I just wanted to run the university, I didn’t want to be caught up in any of this crap.”

“Hey, last time I was here, I just wanted to go to a nice lecture on Carthage, but your campus security goons dragged me off!” I snap.

“Yes, but there were vampire hunters around,” he hisses, glancing around the quad.

“You could have told us about them befor—you know what, nevermind, just take us to the damn statue.” I shove him through the door.

Leeland leads down to the basement, to an office with ‘Department Chair’ plated on the door. He unlocks this room with the same set of keys, walks directly through the stuffy, overladen office to a cabinet in the back. He pulls out a lockbox, places it on the desk, then carefully opens it, lifting out a tarnished statue, about six inches high. He glares at me as he hands it over. “Happy? Get this thing off my campus if it’s gonna attract werewolves.”

I take it.  It looks pretty much as I expected, a semi-crude rendering of a werewolf, striding forward with shoulders stooped. I flip it over to look at the bottom. As Everton said, the metal there is twisted in a spiral, as if it was wrenched off something. Pretty impressive, considering it’s solid bronze.

I hand it to Sophia. “Any ideas?”

She takes it carefully but her face is blank. “No. But I’m not the right person to ask. We need a Galliard.” She sees my expression. “Like…a historian, a storyteller. I’m not one of them.”

“Any of your crew one of them?”

“No. Alexander is an Ahroun, a warrior. Sees-Faces is a Theurge. A mage.” She hands the statue back, avoiding my gaze. “I’m just here for the tech support,” she mumbles.

“And the ass-kicking, girl,” I reassure her, then stare at the statue again. “Know how we can keep this from the Talons?”

“Well normally I’d say take it to the Gaians, but they’re all gone.”

I run my finger over the worn metal curves, thinking. “Why did Everton give it to you again?” I ask Leeland, turning to him.

He sulks against the desk. “To hide it. He said no one would think to look for it here,” he mutters.

Really? No one would look for an ancient statue in an archaeology department?” I smirk mockingly and level the thing at him. “You know it belongs in a muse—“ I stop, my hand drooping as a new idea occurs to me.

“Sophia,” I say carefully, turning to her, “What about taking it to a dragon?”

She tenses, then sighs and closes her eyes. “…Do we really have to?”

“If we need to keep this thing somewhere they can’t get at it, we know Leeland isn’t going to stop a bunch of werewolves, but a dragon….” I wag my eyebrows, liking this plan the more I think about it.

Leeland stares between us. “There’s a dragon?”

I wave him off. “Yeah, don’t worry about it. Anyway—“

“No!” Leeland jumps to his feet, “I think you should tell me about the dragon!”

I sigh. “You know Charles Steinhart?”

“Of course!”

“Yeah, he’s a dragon.”

Leeland blinks. “Say that again?”

I roll my eyes and thunk the statue on the desk. “You know he’s albino right? And you know they have an albino alligator? Have you ever seen them both in the same place at the same time?”

Leeland shoves his bobble-tipped nightcap back. “Are you trying to tell me that Charles Steinhart, curator of the Academy of Sciences for over a decade, with whom I had hors d’oeuvres two nights ago, is a crocodile?”

“No, an alliga—Wait a minute,” I fold my arms and lean forward, “He can’t stand vampires, and you two sat down over tea?!”

“He invited me!” Leeland protests matter-of-factly. “He wanted to discuss how the museum has been running!”

“Does he know you’re a vampire?”

“Of course not, he’s hu…man….” Leeland trails off uncertainly.

I watch him a long moment, not sure how to take this. Werewolves hanging out with Jean, dragons hanging out with Leeland, cats and dogs, living together. In all this, though, I do see a silver lining, “…Do you have his phone number?”

Leeland gapes. “I have the museum’s administrative phone number, but no-one’s going to be there, it’s almost five in the morning!”

“Let’s say we give it a try.” I snap my hand for his phone, copy the number into mine, then call. It rings a few times, then goes to an automated voicemail box:

Welcome to the California Academy of Sciences. To continue in English, press 1.

(Me: “Oh my god, Jason, I’m going to kill you over and over again….”)

I very carefully press 1 on the dialpad and wait through the listing of museum hours and upcoming events to end in a beep.  “Hello, this message is for Charles Steinhart, this is Tom Lytton, I’m calling about a possible item of interest for the museum—“

There’s a click, then a heavy silence. I pause. Finally, a familiar voice answers. “Well…Mr. Lytton,” Charles says. His voice is calm, but just hearing it sends shivers of panic through me. “Fancy hearing from you again.”

I focus on keeping my anxiety out of my voice. “…Ah, yes. Well, I wouldn’t be calling if it wasn’t of utmost importance.”

“Somehow I believe you,” he says smoothly.

I hold up the statue and regard it. “We have an archeological item in our presence that many people seem to be interested in—“

“And let me guess, you want to sell it to me?”

“Oh no, I want to give it to you.”

He chuckles. “A gift, in exchange for my favor, is that how this works?”

God, I really don’t know, this manipulation crap is more Paul’s bag. I take a slow breath to calm myself, trying to think fast. “I believe you already gave me a favor by letting me walk out of your museum.”

“I did, and now you want to earn another one by sucking up to whomever is in charge?”

I bark a laugh. “I am not the sort to suck up to whomever is in charge, sir.”

“Really,” he says flatly. “What is this item?”

I hold it up again, twisting it in the crappy fluorescent light. “Well it’s a statue of a werewolf. Bronze. Unknown era. Word is it was stolen from some cairn. Everton has more details on it, though whether or not this is the legitimate item hasn’t been confirmed.”

There’s a long pause, then Charles speaks again, his voice a low rumble. “…Tomorrow evening. The museum. Only you.” He hangs up.

I smirk and pocket my phone. Sophia is leaning by the door, staring at me. “That was a dragon?”

“Well he was in human form, but yes.” I turn to Leeland, who looks like he’s about to dissolve into a quivering puddle right there on the desk. “You doing okay there?”

He mutters, “I could have gone to Davis, but no…Berkeley had so much more cache….” He looks up. “Just take that damn thing out of my university before werewolves overrun us and kill us all.” He sneers at Sophia. “No offense.”

I roll my eyes. “I’ll try.” With that, I reach for the door—

—And the lights go out.

(BECAUSEOFCOURSEHTHEYFUCKINGDO)

Sophia and I freeze. Leeland waves a hand lazily, then tenses and sits up. “Wait, that’s not the motion detectors, what’s going on?”

I shove the statue in my jacket and draw Glitch. There’s a chunk next to me as Sophia loads her shotgun. Gesturing for Leeland to stay back, I nudge the door open and lean into the hall. It’s dark out there too, but it’s a prosaic darkness, no crushing cold or movements from the shadows.

Which actually makes me more nervous.

Behind me, I hear Leeland groping with his phone. “Get me campus security,” he mutters.

Still staring down the hall, I wave him down. “I don’t think you want them here…it’ll just be more people to get in the way. Girl, bring up the rear, let’s try and get to the stairs.”

Sophia drags Leeland out of the office and into the hall. I lead the way into the darkness, Glitch at the ready. It’s still metal at the moment, but I’m hesitant to turn it into fire with all these books and papers around.

Suddenly footsteps echo down the stairwell, human-sized footsteps. I stop, my grip tensing. A man steps down into the hall, his form obscured by a long coat, his face hidden in deep shadows cast by his wide-brimmed hat. For a brief moment, I think it’s Doc—

A match flares in the dark, struck against one of the bookshelves. He lifts it to his face to light a hand-rolled cigarette, in the process lighting his face as well.

Jeremiah Flagg.

He puffs a moment then grins. “Tell me, sinner,” he drawls in his Southern voice, dripping with righteous judgement, “Can you spare a minute…to talk about the Lord?”

More footsteps suddenly echo down the stairwell behind him.

A lot more.

END OF NIGHT

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