3/12/2015

Jason: “When we last left off, the chess-boxing match between Dr. vonNatsi and Professor Barnabus Chauncy Snodgrass the Fourth was still on-going. Given that neither of these two are particularly impressive physical specimens, and I don’t know that there is one dot of Brawl between these two, it may be on-going for some time.”
Jim: “But how is the chess game going?”
Jason: “Well, the problem is these are Etherites, so they tend to over-think themselves pretty quickly when dealing with chess. You know, they’ll make a move, and then they’ll hesitate, because what happens if the queen comes to life and engages them in a battle of wits, and then cheats?”

***

PLUTO

The mage quotient of the cavern has now reached critical levels, between the boxing Etherites, the Way Dude Virtual Adept, and of course the entire remaining crew of Void Engineers. Captain Sterling has just about had enough of this and storms over to Paul, pulling him from the conversation with the Way Dude.

Paul, irritated at being interrupted from his relaxing philosophical conversation, glowers. “So, you guys are supposedly ‘reality cops,’ right?”

“Yeah, so?” Sterling sneers.

So you go around protecting the universe from reality deviants, eh? Vampires, boogeymen or something?” Paul steps forward and grabs the front of Sterling’s spacesuit, pulling his face close. “WELL WHERE THE FUCK WERE YOU WHEN I WAS TURNED INTO A VAMPIRE!? YOU ASSHOLE!!” He extends one arm to point at Georgia. “She, a vampire, a reality deviant, has saved you and your men, and has shown more compassion than you humans have to anyone else! So get your fucking stick out your ass, show some compassion, and help everyone here get home to their family and loved ones, YOU FUCKING REALITY BIGOT!!!!

vonNatsi and Snodgrass don’t miss a beat in their fight, but everyone else in the room stops, stares at Paul in shocked silence. Even Reginald looks a little flustered.

Sterling jerks his suit out of Paul’s hands and steps back. “We’re extra-dimensional, we don’t deal with reality deviants on the mudball. You want to find out why someone didn’t intercept whatever did this to you, you’re gonna have to talk to a different department.” He points back down the tunnel. “You see the shit running around this temple? The bug aliens and the 40-foot worm that ate my men? That’s the kinda shit we usually deal with. And before you start the self-righteous spiel again, let me remind you that half of my crew is dead from that reality malefactor!” He stabs his finger toward Snodgrass.

Georgia comes over, taking Paul’s arm and patting it gently. “Right the guy we want to help you defeat,” she says soothingly to Sterling.

Paul turns away, intending to resume his philosophical discussion, but the Way Dude is gone. Taking a few breathes to center himself, he wanders off in search of him.

(Chris: “I walk in any particular direction away from the reality cops and the Etherites.
Jason: “Thats going to lead you into a wall nine times out of ten.”
Kara: “I think the Way Dude would be ok with that.
Jim: “That might be the Way.”
Jason: “You walk straight into the wall?”
Chris: “The wall is only in your heart, Jason.”)

Paul heads deeper into the cavern, passing clusters of space whales/cats, stopping occasionally to pet them while side-stepping vomit. He finds another tunnel in the shadows at the back of the cavern, half hidden behind a broken stalagmite. Steeling himself, he heads down it.

#

Georgia, meanwhile, eyes the space whales perched around the cavern and gets an idea. She walks over to Jawahar, standing to the side watching the chess-boxing nervously. “Jawahar,  I have a question for you. We have altered gravity here, correct?”

“Insofar as Pluto’s gravity is different, yes,” he says, still watching the match.

“What would happen if I took a space whale home to earth?”

With that he turns to her, shocked. “It would weigh 600 pounds, it would crush under its own weight!”

“What kind of magic could you use to prevent that?”

His shocked expression fades as he considers this, pushing his glasses up his nose thoughtfully. “Depends on the circumstance. You could reduce the gravity in an area, or for an object. You could alter its mass to reduce it in some way, or strengthen it so it could support its own weight.”

“Could you permanently alter a space whale to have less gravity around it?”

“Permanently?” He shakes his head sadly. “No, I haven’t the skill to do something like that. I have known archmages capable of things like that, but they are not here.” He glance around the cavern. “Where has your friend gone?”

“Paul?” Georgia turns, noticing for the first time that he’s disappeared, but shrugs. “I think he needed some time alone, he seems….anxious.”

Jawahar looks at her flatly. “You don’t say.”

“Maybe he’s petting some space whales to calm down?” A mewing suddenly echoes from around her feet. Georgia looks down to find the space whale from earlier, the bright yellow one who rode her shoulder, rubbing against the legs of her umbrella suit. Georgia picks it up and it immediately scrambles to a perch on her shoulder again. “This one does seem to like me,” she says wistfully, stroking its head, “I had hoped I could take it home with me. Without, you know, killing it.”

“Well at this point I will be amazed if we make it home at all.” Jawahar turns back to the ring, where the match has switched to boxing-mode yet again. “Do you have any idea how long they will be at this?”

vonNatsi makes a wide strike that misses Snodgrass by at least a foot. Snodgrass counters with a punch that would barely unseat a dandelion. “Probably a while, if we don’t intervene,” Georgia says.

Jawahar sighs. “Not that I’m in a hurry to make enemies of Etherites but perhaps we should intervene?”

Georgi considers this a moment. The match is won by check-mate or knock-out, and while the former seems theoretically more possible, the latter might be easier to assist. “Could you buff Dr vonNatsi? Like, transfer some of my strength to him?”

Jawahar considers this a few moments, muttering to himself. “…Well, all energy is essentially the same….” He squats down and traces a few calculations in Sanskrit in the dirt. “Will you do me a great favor? As a vampire, you can perform great feats of strength, yes? Would you find a very heavy object and lift it?”

Georgia walks to a manageable-sized rock, shoos the space whales off, and lifts it, but it weighs way too light in the low gravity. She puts it back down and tries a larger one, but it too is too light. She puts it down and frowns. Now that she’s thinking about it, the space whales are the only thing in the room that feel like they weigh what they’re supposed to weigh—15 to 20 pounds—which means that they are actually some of the heaviest things there.

(Kara: “I start picking up cats.”
Jason: “You are literally herding cats.”
Me: “That’s what Jason does every session!”)

#

There is light at the end of Paul’s tunnel, flickering candlelight. He approaches slowly and steps out into another cavern, considerably smaller than the first. Candles line the ledges, and in the center of the room, crosslegged on the floor, is the Way Dude. Paul settles himself on the ground in front of him and waits.

The Way Dude opens an eye and smiles. “Why have you come to this place?” he asks in his breathy voice.

“Initially curiosity, but I didn’t wind up where I expected to be.”

The Way Dude nods. “There are few who do. Only those who walk the Way.”

Paul thinks, staring at the candles. “I guess I primarily came to rescue a friend.”

“But from what do you rescue them, and into what?”

“Those are good questions.” He shrugs. “At this point, I don’t know. Maybe being estranged from home?”

“But are we not all estranged, and is there home?”

“I don’t know if there is, but there definitely can be a home.”

The Way Dude holds up a finger. “But how does one find it?”

Paul is silent a moment, thinking. “Do you like cabbage?”

“What is cabbage?”

Paul smiles. “Exactly, and do you like tofu?”

The Way Dude returns the smile and nods slowly. “Yes.”

“So, at my home I have a bunch of cabbage and tofu, and let me tell you, I can make a mean cabbage and tofu salad. When I think of home, I think a lot about cabbage and tofu, and my garden.”

“One does not have cabbage, one is proximate to cabbage. But are all proximities not the same, and are you not proximate to cabbage now?”

Paul’s head droops as he concentrates. “I suppose I am.”

“Look about you.” The Way Dude spreads his arms. Paul looks up. Cabbages have appeared throughout the cavern, tucked on ledges around the candles and scattered across the floor. Paul reaches out and picks one up. It’s light as a balloon in the Plutonian gravity. He lets go and watches it fall gently to the floor.

The Way Dude leans forward. “Comprehend the essence of cabbage, and you will begin to discover the way of cabbage. Which is an element of…the Way.”

#

Georgia, meanwhile, has collected a massive armful of roughly three dozen space whales, all peering around and mewing bemusedly.

Jawahar looks up from his calculations as she returns. “Well I suppose it will do,” he mutters.

(Kara: “I can’t see him.)

He traces more patterns in the dirt. “I will need you to time this very carefully. The next time Dr. vonNatsi throws a heavy—“ Jawahar hesitates. “—The next time he throws what looks like he thinks will be a heavy punch, drop all the space whales at once.”

The pile bobs as Georgia nods enthusiastically. “Space whales, I’m going to drop you. I’m sorry, but you’ll be ok!” The mewing turns confused.

Jawahar, meanwhile, holds up a hand, watching the ring closely. “Not yet…not yet….” Finally, with an echoing cry of “SCIENCE!”, vonNatsi winds up for his most telegraphed strike yet. Jawahar drops his hand. “Now!”

Georgia drops the pile of space whales. They fall a foot…then stop, hovering mid-air. In the ring, dr. vonNatsi suddenly flies forward as if he’s been thrown, his glove hitting Snodgrass across the jaw like a rocket.

Snodgrass reels, almost in slow motion, spittle flying and mustache waving. There’s a wavering cry of, “Unorthodo—“ then Snodgrass falls flat on his face.

vonNatsi stops, staring, then raises two skinny arms in triumph. “SCIENCE!!!!”

The space whales plop the rest of the way to the floor, though most twist to their feet before they land. They mingle around Georgia and Jawahar, mewing. Georgia helps the mage to his feet. “Jawahar that was badass!!

Jawahar grins, brushing the dirt from his pants. “Oh it was very simple,” he says smugly, “Just one form of energy into another!”

“Excellent.” Georgia looks to the space whale still perched on her shoulder. “How long could you sustain that? Do you think you could use that on one of the whales?”

Jawahar turns thoughtful, staring at his calculations. “Well it depends on how long I had to prepare. What do you wish to do with a space whale?”

“I want to take it home!”

He looks at her. “They do have cats on Earth,” he says reasonably.

She stares back blankly. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It…you know what it isn’t important.” He points down at his calculations. “If you can give me fifteen minutes, I might be able to come up with something, but we shall see.”

Georgia goes to celebrate with Dr. vonNatsi while Jawahar prepares his magic. The Void Engineers glare from across the room, while Reginald is stoically administering to the unconscious Snodgrass. Georgia climbs into the ring to join Dr. vonNatsi, matching his bouncing as they jump up and down excitedly.

(Jason: “Roll Charisma.”
Kara: “Does this count as ‘cheerful’?”
Jason: “You actually have a focus in cheerful?!”)

#

Paul and the Way Dude’s conversation has wandered along predictable tracks and they’re now talking about the Beetles. Specifically, how much they both like the White Album.

The Way Dude suddenly trails off, holding up a hand thoughtfully. “Do you wish to know the Way, in this way?” Paul nods enthusiastically. “Then let me show you…the Way.”

There’s a POP, and suddenly Paul is standing in normal gravity. He looks around. He is back in San Francisco, in front of the Fillmore Auditorium. The main doors are open and music is streaming from inside the building, even though the lights are off and no marquis is set up outside.

(Me: “…Oh no….”)

Paul walks inside, staggering a bit till he regains his sense of Earth gravity. No one is in the front of the building, so he heads through, to the auditorium floor. The seats are empty, but a man is on stage, lit by a single spotlight, playing “Helter Skelter” on a reversible key-tar guitar and dressed like Falco.

Siegfried von Austerlitz.

(Jason: “I accidentally double-downed on my Siegfried’s, so we’ll need a different first name at some point.”
Jim: “Vaughn.”
Jason: “…Shut up.”
Chris: “Okay, I do three things. One, I try to summon Georgia.”
Jason: “You can’t summon inter-dimensionally.”
Chris: “Ok, then I try to summon Jawahar.”
Jason: “Also no.”
Chris: “Then…I groove out.”)

#

PLUTO

vonNatsi, exhausted from twenty-three rounds of chess-boxing, finally stops celebrating, though Georgia continues jumping. Next to them, Snodgrass slowly stirs on the mat.

Georgia finally stops. “Reginald! Do be so kind as to fetch us some rope!”

The butler looks up at her, then nods. “Very good, madam.” He climbs out of the ring and steps behind a stalagmite, immediately reappearing out the other side with a wrapped coil of rope. He hands it to Georgia, who ties up Snodgrass before he can fully awaken.

With that, she stands and turns to address the Void Engineers. “It is imperative that we get to his ship, and from there I think we should all leave.”

“That is the best idea I’ve ever heard,” Sterling grumbles, then looks around. “What happened to your counterpart?”

Georgia hesitates. “That’s a good question. Paul?”

They look around. The cavern is silent, until suddenly, a disembodied voice echoes across the stone. “He is exploring…the Way….

“Ah, well good,” Georgia says. “Is he going to be ready to go with us?”

There’s a pause, then, as if from a greater distance, “The Waaaaay….” The voice fades out.

“Okay, well can you let him know we’re leaving?” she cries to the air. No response. She shrugs and moves on. “Reginald, where did you park the ship?”

“The ship is above the facility, madam,” he says with a bow.

“Good, then will you escort us?” Using her vampiric strength, she hauls Snodgrass, disoriented and muttering, to his feet and slings him onto her shoulder. The yellow space whale jumps off as she settles the mage, then leaps back on to perch atop of him.

Reginald leads all of them out through the cavern and the palace, passing bodies and pieces of bodies—alien, human, and otherwise—and to a long, winding staircase climbing a minaret. They emerge onto a stone balcony at the top, looking out over the golden domes and the stark mountains surrounding them.

Tethered to the edge of the minaret by a gangway, looking like a zeppelin that got into a three-way fight with a pirate ship and a Burning Man project, is the HMES Harrumph (God save the Queen).  Georgia, Snodgrass, the space whale, Reginald, Dr. vonNatsi, Jawahar, and all the surviving Void Engineers climb aboard.

The other mages hesitate cautiously once they enter, but Georgia moves through the ship quickly, finally dumping the still-woozy Snodgrass on the most uncomfortable-looking wingback chair in his beloved Blue Room. “Reginald,” she asks as she returns to the corridor, “May I have a phone?”

“Certainly, madam.” He enters another room down the hall and comes back bearing an antique rotary phone on a silver tray. Unperturbed by the unfamiliar design, or the lack of a cord, Georgia picks up the receiver and dials Paul’s cellphone.

Paul answers after a few rings. “Yes?” he says, heavily key-tared rock music blaring in the background.

“Paul, where are you?”

“I’m in the Fillmore, I think I’m back on Earth. I was going to call, but…the music….” His voice fades out briefly, then sharpens again. “Anyway, is there a number for the Space Cops, or for their ship, or whatever?”

Georgia’s not sure, but fortunately Sterling’s lieutenant is passing down the corridor at that moment, peering into rooms. Georgia hands the phone to her. “Hell…o?” the woman says carefully, glaring at Georgia.

“Hi, this is Paul Stewart. I’m back on Earth, but I wanted to know if you have a number I can call to reach your ship, so I can help you get back to it, or send a rescue team?”

The woman stares. “…How did you get back to Earth?!

“Honestly, I just really wanted to listen to music, and it worked out really well. Here, can you hear this—?” The distorted background music gets louder, but no less distorted.

The lieutenant frowns. “…Is that the White Album?”

Just then, Captain Sterling passes down the hall. The lieutenant waves him down and hands him the phone. Paul asks him the same question. Sterling rolls his eyes and says there’s no reason for him to give out an official Technocracy phone number that won’t get a kill-team put on Paul. He does, however, begrudgingly concede to give Paul a mailbox number and a code phrase. He tells Paul that if he needs to contact him, call that number, leave a message with the phrase, and then ditch the phone he called in on, and wait.

#

Georgia, meanwhile, has wandered off in search of the dining room/bridge. She finds it empty of furniture, but the clear walls and ships-wheel at the front look out over a commanding vista of the palace and Plutonian horizon. Reginald appears as she fiddles with the wheel, and, with his assistance, they lift off. Georgia waves at the temple, and the planet, as they pull away.

The space whale wanders in, unperturbed by the lack of visible walls. Georgia picks him up as he wanders over to join her at the wheel. “Hey space whale, how are you feeling, not too heavy?” she asks, hefting him experimentally. He hangs limply in her grip and mews at her. She places him back on her shoulder and turns back to the view.

Reginald bows. “Madam, I have prepared your room for you, if you wish to retire for the remainder of our journey.”

“Excellent, Reginald.” With one last look at the planet, receding into the star-littered night, she follows him out of the room.

#

BERKELEY

Sophia and I stare at Flagg, grinning at us in the light of his cigarette, as footsteps descend the stairwell behind him.

Holding Glitch ahead of me, I back up, forcing Sophia—and Leeland—back down the hall as well. “Girl, can you, like…step us out of here?”

“Got anything reflective?” she mutters.

I look around. Various shelves and furniture line the hallway, but everything so worn and dusty, even the glass-fronted cabinets are dull. I keep moving us slowly back toward the office we just left.

Flagg suddenly steps forward, brandishing a small book. Fuck, I know what that is. “Now you shall be washed in the waters of righteousness!” he shouts with full evangelical fervor.

I glare back. “Says the man who keeps popping back from the dead like fucking daisies!”

“You can’t unmake the work of the LORD!” he roars. “Be healed!!!” With that he runs forward, moving to strike with his Bible.

I snap Glitch up in a parry. The book slices smoothly in half, but the sword suddenly weighs heavy in my hand. I stagger under the unexpected weight. Whatever metallic form it was before, now it seems to be simple steel.

Flagg stares at his half-a-Bible, breath heaving. “You would profane the words of the Lord!?”

I smirk. “Yeah, lets see if that regrows, son!”

He looks up slowly, then, grinning sickly, shoves the book into his pocket, and draws it out, fully restored.

My sword hand droops. “Wow,” Sophia mutters next to me, begrudgingly impressed.

Flagg steps forward to strike me again. This time, I slash Glitch up to slice off his hand. Blood fountains across the walls, but he doesn’t yell. He doesn’t even flinch, just levels his bleeding stump at us. “I shall cast you down with the sodomites!!!” At this, shadowy figures start to collect in the stairwell behind him.

Sophia grabs my arm as we continue to back up. “Tom, who the fuck is this guy?!”

“He’s the one who showed up that night at Leeland’s.” I meet her eyes. “When you got shot.”

Her face hardens. “…Yeah?” With that, she steps forward, draws her handgun and unloads it into Flagg. More blood sprays into the hall and he drops to the tile floor.

She smirks, putting the gun away, but I grab her arm. “He’s gonna be back, so we gotta move.”

I try to pull her back down the hall, but she resists. “What do you mean, he’ll be back? Is he the fucking Terminator?

“I mean I’ve chopped off his head three times and it’s grown back every time!”

“What?! Is he a vampire?”

“I wish! That would probably be better!”

“How is he supposed to be—“ Behind us we hear a groan, and turn. Flagg is rising to his feet, ranks of blank-faced Clarences—all armed with swords—standing behind him. As Flagg stands, grinning and fully-healed, the clone legion starts to flow forward.

Simultaneously, Sophia and I grab the stunned Leeland and drag him back to the office. I slam the door closed and start shoving furniture in front of it, while Sophia rifles around for something reflective; a spoon, or even a blank screen—

“Why isn’t there a computer in here!?” she yells, tearing through papers on the desk.

Leeland stands in a corner, wringing his hands. “It’s…well, I use this office, sometimes—“

“Dammit, Leeland!!” I shout, tipping over a bookshelf. Luddite asshole.

The door starts vibrating with heavy thuds. Sophia stops digging. “This isn’t going to work, even if I find something, I don’t think we have time.” She licks her lips nervously. “…I have an idea,  but…you’re not gonna like it….”

A heavy shove breaks the lock, opening the door an inch. I slam it closed and brace myself against it. “Right now I think I’m going to love it! What is it?”

“It’s probably better if I don’t tell you….” She pulls out her phone, hits some buttons, and holds it shakily to her ear. “…Alex? We, ah…got a problem….”

I stare at her, then realize: Alex…ander, oh, shit—

She hangs up. “He’s, ah…on his way.” She glances at me and Leeland, then away. “He probably won’t kill you,” she mutters.

The pounding intensifies. Sophia helps me drag over every last piece of furniture in the room while Leeland watches helplessly.

“These doors are shit, Leeland!” I yell over the bangs and sound of squealing furniture.

“It’s an archaeology department, not a prison!” he shouts back.

Flagg’s evangelical protestations echo through the chaos. “Who the hell is that guy?” Sophia asks as we shove the desk in place.

“I don’t know, some crazy street preacher who’s got a boner for me that I can’t get rid of!”

She stares as we step back. “You’ve got some real interesting guys that want to kill you, Tom.”

I survey our work and toss a couple books on the pile for good measure. “Yeah, well, not as interesting as my friends.”

The thuds continue, but the blockade has finally reached a point where it doesn’t budge. I sink to the floor in relief. “So, what now?”

She flops next to me. “I don’t know, I don’t know how far away Alex was. But when he gets here he’s probably going to kill everything in the building that isn’t us.”

“Well, that’s not too bad.” Silence for a moment as we listen to the shouts and the thumps. “Well, anyone I can call will just make the situation worse, especially if he’s already coming.”

Suddenly, something very strange happens: I yawn.

I immediately freeze and check the time. 5:30 am.  “Hey girl, I’m, ah…getting a little tired….” On the far side of the room, I see Leeland looking suddenly bleary too. Fortunately, he’s already in his nightgown.

She stares. “Oh, shit…how does this work?”

I glance around. No windows. “Well, we’re safe from light down here, but I’ll be pretty much literally dead to the world till sunset.”

She points to the door. “Will it do the same to them?”

I listen, but it doesn’t sound like they’re slowing down. “I don’t know, but even if it does, Flagg isn’t a vampire—“

Leeland suddenly thuds to the floor. I fight to remain awake, barely enough focus left to string words together….

(Me: “I should probably let someone know what happened, in case I don’t get out of this.”
Jason: “Ok, what do you do?”
Me: “I send a mass-text to Bell and Marcus: ‘Flagg attack in Berkeley. So sleeps. Wow.’ “)

A new noise jerks some consciousness back into me. The sound of splintering. Sophia’s head snaps up. I reach down, grab Glitch, and hand it to her, hilt-first. “Girl, you’re probably going to be able to use this better than I can.”

She takes it tentatively. “I don’t know how to use this!”

I smile wearily.  “The pointy end goes in the enemy.”

In that moment, I watch the fear clear from her face as she rolls her eyes at me. Hand now steady, she puts the sword down and, instead, grabs her shotgun from her bag. “No offense, Tom, but I’ll stick with what I know.” With that, she gets up and moves to the barricade.

My last conscious view, before surrendering to the day, is her shoving the gun through the holes in the door, firing over and over with grim determination.

#

HUNTERS POINT NAVAL SHIPYARD

Anstis circles over the abandoned lots and superfund sites  that make up the old shipyard, until he spots the hatches to the buried tanks Carlos described to him. He lands, switches up to human, pries one open, and drops inside.

Luckily, it isn’t the body tank.

Instead, Anstis finds a generic storage tank filled with various implements, from office supplies to bags of concrete, and a distressing amount of rope. He digs around the mess, but there’s no sign of the surgical kit he’s looking for. With dawn looming close, he decides to hurry this process along. He places one hand to the rusted metal of the tank and murmurs a necromantic ritual, summoning the shade of Carlos.

Instantly, Carlos is there, standing in the very tank where he once contemplated the deaths he had caused. He stares around in the gloom, semi-translucent face unreadable, and reaches out to touch his dusty possessions, but his hand passes right through.

“Carlos,” Anstis says. “There is a great amount of stuff here, I am having difficulty finding the item.”

Carlos stares at his hand briefly, then moves through the space. “Someone has been here….” he rasps, voice echoing deeper than Anstis’s, as if he were in a separate, vaster space. He walks to an overturned filing cabinet. “Open this.”

Anstis flips it over to pull out the drawers and starts digging though, Carlos surveying above. After a moment, Carlos points to an item in Anstis’s hand. “This. You will wish to read this.”

(Jason: “…What is that?”
Chris: “It’s a journal of letters one of my victims was forced to write everyday when I told him he would die the next day.”
Jason: “……How long did you do this for!?”
Chris: “Seven weeks. Also if you pay close attention, you’ll notice it’s not written in ink.”)

Anstis opens the book, realizes that the name of the person who wrote it is on every page, then quickly pockets the book and continues rifling through the drawer. Nothing else of note comes out.

“The surgical kit is in the other tank,” Carlos rasps. Anstis glares at him, then climbs out and moves to the next one, this time searching on his own because Carlos can’t follow that far. Finally, he finds the beaten leather bag half-buried under a pile of rusted chains. Dawn is no more than a half hour away, but he’s eager to continue advancing his plans with his new spirit thrall, so he immediately places his hand on the wall and tries to summon Carlos again.

The temperature in the tank suddenly plummets. Strange sounds echo through the tank, birds and howling animals, twisted together into a cacophonous menagerie. Anstis shoves the surgical kit under his arm and scrambles up the piles of junk to the hatch overhead. Just as he reaches it, it slams shut. Things from the piles start flying into the air, pelting Anstis as he wrenches at it. A cinderblock cracks him in the head, knocking him back to the floor.

The sounds increase, followed by a rushing, as if a windstorm was approaching. The wind brings the sound of chanting, children chanting a word over and over again. It swells louder, the word becomes clearer:

Bonfire…bonfire…bonfire….

Suddenly the interior walls and piles of trash erupt into flames. Fighting panic, Anstis leaps for the hatch again, wrenching at it with his weight until the whole thing snaps off. He scrambles out, tripping on rubble, running across the cracked concrete lots—

—Till he suddenly goes limp, crashing unconscious to the ground, completely exposed to a brightening sky.

#

HMES HARRUMPH (GOD SAVE THE QUEEN)

Georgia spends the next few hours reading quietly in her cabin, the space whale curled up on her lap, strangely feeling no urge to sleep. Finally, there’s a knock on the door and Reginald comes in, announcing that they are back in California.

Georgia frowns. The journey seems to have happened faster than she would have expected, but then she shrugs, not really understanding space distances anyway. “Reginald, you are a master navigator.”

He bows, his mustache twitching in a pleased way. “Very good, madam.”

“Can you drop us off in San Francisco?”

“Indeed, madam, I will just require—“

A crash echoes from the hallway, followed by a shout. “REGINALD!!!!”

He bows. “Pardon me, madam,” he says, and leaves.

“Oh dear.” Georgia sighs, puts down the book, carefully dislodges the cat, then follows Reginald to the Blue Room.

Snodgrass has untied himself, but is fit to be tied, storming around the room red-faced rage. He has, however, somehow reacquired a full set of khaki clothes to replace his khaki fighting trousers. He stops as he sees Georgia and lets out a stream of blustering curses, in which she can just make out inquiries as to the meaning of this and the general level of orthodoxy.

Georgia clasps her hands calmly in front of her. “I am sorry, sir, but you did lose the duel, and now—”

“By joves, that’s not possible!” he says and launches into a new round of curses.

She glares. “It’s not very gentlemanly to interrupt a lady while she is speaking.”

Snodgrass stops, throws arms into a fold across his chest, then continues muttering, quietly.

“That’s better. As I was saying, we have arrived in California and will be disembarking from your lovely ship.” She bows. “Thank you for the transit, and you are now free to go on your way.”

“This is unreasonable! I must have the plutonian ambergris!”

“But you lost, good sir!” she stresses.

He levels a finger at her. “Clearly chicanery was involved! Teutonic chicanery, no less! You cant expect a gentlemanly duel from that German!”

“Those are very serious accusations,” she says seriously.

“They are the most unorthodox accusations! Unreasonable!”

“Will you bring them up to the council?” Georgia, of course, isn’t sure that there is a ‘council,’ but it seems like the sort of thing there should be. Snodgrass apparently falls for her bluff, dropping back down into a sullen grumble. She nods smartly. “Well, I assume the paperwork will take you some time, so we shall leave you to it.”

“I shall get to the bottom of this nonsense!” he shouts as she turns to leave. “You shall be hearing from my barrister!”

She curtsies to Reginald, who’s standing stiffly in the doorway. “Reginald, it was lovely. You have been nothing but charming.”

“Yes madam.” He bows her out. “Thank you, madam.”

“I wish you all the best, and if you find that you ever need a change in employment, please come find us!”

As she disappears down the hall, a final outraged shout of “MOST UNORTHODOX!” follows her out.

She searches the ship till she finds Dr vonNatsi, who has commandeered one of the parlors and, during the short journey, has somehow already managed to turn it into a science lab.

(Jason: “Either that, or science labs just kinda grow up around him”)

“Ms. Johnson!” he shouts as she walks in, beakers of smoking liquids in both hands.

“It is time for us to disembark!” she announces.

“Of course!” He drops the beakers and claps once. “Ve have science to do!”

She looks at the shattered beakers—now in a smoking stain on the floor—and the nearby tables covered with other empirical instruments. “Do you need help packing?”

He gestures weakly. “Nein, nein, zis can all be replaced.”

“Do you have the space whale vomit?”

“Ja, I have packaged it very carefully!” He rushes to a table and picks up a tattered cardboard box that clinks ominously as it moves. “It is properly prepared! Zis came…from Federal Express!” 

“You should keep an eye on it, I think Snodgrass will try to steal it.”

vonNatsi scowls and shoves the box under his arm. “He shall not have ze ambergris! Ze vale vomit must be used for pure etheric science!!”

“Yes! I agree!” She steps over the smoking puddle. “Let me get my things.”

She next tries to check on the Void Engineers, but strangely, they have all disappeared. But Georgia doesn’t dwell on this. She goes to her room to get her bag and her space whale, then finds Jawahar, meditating quietly in one of the other parlors.

She knocks on the doorframe. “Jawahar, it’s time to leave.”

He opens one eye at her. “Where are we going?”

“To vonNatsi’s lab.”

“Where?

“In Sutro Tower.”

He closes his eyes. “In what city?

The City. Why, where do you live?”

He sighs. “Delhi.”

“Oh.” She blinks. “That’s far away.”

He sighs again and gets to his feet. “Not as far as Pluto, so this is good enough for now.”

vonNatsi and Jawahar gather with Georgia in the ope hatchway of the ship. The ship is docked next to the top of Sutro Tower, connected by a rope-railed gangway. Fog rolls below them, hiding the city from view, the tower rises like a spidery red lighthouse above a glowing sea.

They exit down the gangway. vonNatsi’s arms are filled with boxes of vomit, and Georgia is fussing with her bag and umbrella suit, so it falls upon Jawahar to carry the space whale down with them. Georgia—who also somehow seems to have acquired a wide-brimmed fancy hat—waves cheerily back at the ship. Reginald waves back from the open-walled dining-bridge, while next to him, Snodgrass glowers. The moment they step onto the catwalk, the gangplank retracts, sandbags drop from the ship, and the ship rises up into the sky.

Georgia stares up, holding her hat against the wind, till the ship disappears against the stars. “Well that was a lovely vacation.”

vonNatsi, also staring up, nods. “Zat…vas a bit odd.”

Georgia looks to the east, where the sky above the fog is starting to ominously brighten. “Shall we go downstairs and head inside?”

“Ja! But, Ms. Johnson, I must thank you for assisting me in ze cause of science, against ze charlatans!” He shakes one lab-gloved fist at the sky.

Georgia nods, then beams. “Doctor…does this mean I am officially your…apprentice?”

voNatsi considers this. “Apprentices are something that vizards have.” His gaze flicks to Jawahar, standing next to them with an armful of limp space whale. “Ve practice science.” vonNatsi folds his hands and regards her thoughtfully. “I think…I shall give you the rank of graduate student.”

Georgia agrees enthusiastically, and with that, they head toward the elevator, vonNatsi prattling on about research grants and writing case studies on the Plutonian whales for Paradigma.

Jawahar stares at them a moment, looks at the cat hanging patiently from his arms, stares at the empty, foggy vista around them, then hangs his head in resignation and follows them.

#

(Jason: “So, the next night falls—”
Me: “Great! Who’s still alive?”)

#

FILLMORE AUDITORIUM

Paul wakes up slouched on a chair in the front row of an empty auditorium. A janitor is vacuuming the floor in front of him. He sees that Paul is awake, then stops and takes out his headphones. “Long day?”

Paul stares into space a moment. “You have no idea.”

The janitor nods, then frowns. “Hey, do I know you?”

“Nope, just one of those faces.” The janitor shrugs and goes back to vacuuming. Paul gets up, casts one more look at the empty stage, then leaves.

#

HUNTERS POINT

(Jason: “Jim! You wake up—”
Jim: “Oh thank god.”
Jason: “—With three boxes of agg.”
Jim: “Errg!”
Jason: “Don’t errg me, you should be dead!”)

Anstis wakes up half-buried under one the rubble piles littering the lot around Carlos’s tanks. He is in bad shape, burnt all over, most of his clothes ruined, but he’s still alive. As he climbs out, though, he realizes that the pile of cinderblock is pretty heavy and firmly set, so it’s unlikely it cascaded over him naturally.

But he doesn’t have time to dwell on it, because right now he is also starving. His Beast takes over and sends him stumbling after the smell of blood, drifting from a row of houses only a few blocks away.

#

TOM’S UNKNOWN LOCATION

I wake to find myself under looming oak trees; moonlit, mist-shrouded, and cool. It would actually be quite nice, if I wasn’t tied to the trunk of one of them.

I jerk experimentally against my bindings. Not tied, chained, with links the width of my thumb and secured with heavy padlocks. I look myself over. I don’t seem to be injured, but my clothes are rumpled as if they’ve been rifled through. My guns are also missing, and so is Glitch. Goddammit.

I hear a groan and look up. Across the way, Leeland is chained to another tree, his nightgown filthy and his bobble-hat completely missing. He lifts his head up, looking around blearily, then tenses and comes all the way awake.

Crunching echoes through the trees behind me, heavy footfalls approaching over the dead leaves. Leeland freezes, eyes wide. I can’t turn my head that far so I wait for whomever—or whatever—it is to reach us.

Four werewolves step into view, all in different forms. One is Sophia, in human form, clutching her tablet while simultaneously squinting through some GoogleGlass-like heads-up device. She looks at me then quickly looks away. I relax to see that she’s okay, but it doesn’t last long. Next to her is a wolf the size of a pony, like some Game of Thrones dire-wolf shit. He looks familiar, and it takes me a moment to remember; he’s the one Sophia calls Sees-Faces.

In front, though, are two werewolf-werewolves, both clearing ten-feet high. The larger, darker one is Alexander-aka-Stormwalker, streaked with blood and darker substances. He sees I’m awake and growls low, shifting his heavy silver sword on his shoulder. The movement reveals a leather sash draped across his chest. Tucked into it is Glitch. I return his glare silently.

The one next to Stormwalker, though, is new to me. Though almost as tall, he’s leaner, with long smooth limbs and a pointed, narrow muzzle. His ears are perched high on his head and angled forward, in an almost-friendly way, but the look in his bright yellow eyes isn’t friendly at all.

(Chris: “You don’t have a reputation for killing werewolves, do you?”
Jim: “You’ve never done anything ill-tempered, have you?”
Jason: “You don’t work for anyone who’s on the werewolf hit-list or anything, do you?”)

I can feel instinctive terror rising in me the longer I stare into the full-werewolves’ gazes, so I look away, meeting Sophia’s from behind her glasses. “Heeeeey girl, you alright? What happened?”

She tucks her tablet away in her bag and walks a little closer. “We, ah, got out….” She glances at Stormwalker. “Alex got us out.”

“Ah. Awesome.” I turn to him. “Thank…you?”

His eyes narrow. “You’re welcome,” he growls.

I look around. There’s nothing but trees and oak hillside as far as I can see. “Where are we?”

“We’re in San Leandro. Near the reservoir.” Sophia glances at her companions. “They wanted to…talk.”

My arms are forced against my sides, so I force as obvious a shrug as I can. “Well, great, I’m not going anywhere, what do you want to talk about?”

The thin werewolf steps forward, so tall he has to duck under the heavy branches of the oak. “We can start with payment,” he says. His accent is smooth but unplaceable, and all the more surprising for how enunciated it is from his long muzzle.

My eyes dart around, “Payment for what?”

“Well we don’t usually do deliveries, if you will, for leeches.” He chuckles and folds his long talons companionably. “Tom. My name is Samir. I have heard much about you. I have it on good authority that you are quite good at killing them.” He tilts his head and a smirk plays along his jaw. “Just not that good, it seems.”

“Well whatever the fuck we were facing wasn’t exactly a ‘leech,’” I make airquotes with my hands, pinned down to my sides, “And I don’t know what the hell all that was. We’ve been dealing with bullshit like that for weeks now.”

“And how do you feel about this? Do you enjoy it? Would you like to make a lifetime business of it?”

A lifetime of this bullshit is the last thing I need, but I suspect if I put it that way, they’ll simply remove the offending variable. “No, no….” I say carefully. “I’m just trying to take things one night at a time.”

“Well.” Samir crunches across the leaves, pacing. “I thought about leaving you, and your friend,” he glances at Leeland, trembling so hard his chains are rattling, “But Sophie, wonderful girl that she is, said that you might be useful.” Sophia looks to the ground as the wolves around her chuckle. “So. I thought, why not? After all, one does not throw away a useful tool when it has yet to be used.”

My jaw clenches at the stress he puts on, “tool,” but I don’t say anything. Even though I know she’s one of them, seeing these monsters tower around Sophia while casually discussing killing is making my skin crawl, especially with her wincing and timidly trying to bury herself in her electronics. Their attitude smacks of bullying, and bullies are just as likely to turn on one of their own, so I keep my mouth shut to avoid making things worse.

I’m also not entirely confident I won’t accidentally out my connections to Marcus.

“So,” Samir continues, “I wanted to talk to you, Tom. Get an idea of your character, that I might know how, shall we say, devoted you are to following through on some of this killing that you’re doing.”

“I’m not exactly following anything through, things seem to be following me,” I grumble.

“But if I were to put something in your way, you would have no problem destroying it?”

My chains clink as I shrug. “Depends on what the thing is.”

His long mouth splits in a smile. “Ah, so you have limits. What are they, if I might ask?”

I blink. I’m not entirely sure myself. “…They tend to be situation-dependent.”

“Ah. And what kind of situation would,, say a schoolbus full of children, be? Or nuns perhaps?”

I start to snort at the ridiculousness of the question, but no one else looks like they’re laughing, not even Leeland. I clear my throat and sober up. “Well, I didn’t go to Catholic school, so I don’t got anything against nuns, really, and kids are…” I hesitate, mind racing to filter anything I might say, “…Super off-limits,” I say cagily.”

Samir claps and laughs. “That’s good! That is good, we can work with that. You see, if I am to use you, shall we say, in the future, I need to make certain that between then and now you don’t do something that I would disagree with.”

Anger starts to roil inside me again. I get a sudden mental image of Summoning Marcus onto their asses and seeing how smug they are then. For a brief instant, the only thing stopping me from doing exactly that is the fact that I can’t, yet, thank god, but the anger doesn’t abate. “See, I’m a little confused here, why are we working under the assumption that you get to ‘use’ me in any capacity?”

Sophia facepalms. Sees-faces and Stormwalker growl, but Samir laughs, a yelping jackal sound. “Ahh, Tom. You’re very adorable. Were you living, we might have more wonderful conversations, I’m sure. But you’re not alive, and while my comrades may be more willing to work with or manipulate you, I have reservations about your kind.”

“He dislikes vampires even more than I do,” Stormwalker growls. “But he was rather instrumental for us arriving in time to save your undead carcass.”

I glance at Sophia. “Those things were breaking in, Tom, I didn’t know what else to do,” she mutters.

Remembering my mass-text, I meet her gaze. “Did…anybody else show up?” I ask carefully.

Her eyes widen and she shakes her head lightly. “Not that I saw.”

Stormwalker, meanwhile, stalks forward and continues, “So, since you would be dead without us, if we don’t get sufficient payback for our investment in restraint in this particular matter, you’re still useful to us dead.” He folds his arms and grins. “Now, Sophie doesn’t like that latter option—“

“And we do like Sophie, quite a bit more than you,” Samir adds.

“—But she’ll get over it,” Stormwalker finishes, trading a grin with the jackal. Sophia gives them a dirty look, but doesn’t speak up otherwise. “But since we don’t like hurting Sophie, we are going go give you the option of being more valuable than occupying a place on a trophy rack.”

I glare up at them, watching their steaming breath coil through the night air. In the silence, Leeland suddenly shouts, “FOR GODS-SAKE, DO WHATEVER THEY SAY!”

“Oh don’t worry, we’ll get to you in a moment,” Samir says, turning to him. “You’re not quite as good at killing, but I have another use for you.” Leeland whimpers and sags against his chains. Samir grins and turns back to me. “I have uses for both of you.”

#

HUNTERS POINT

Anstis comes to to find himself crouched at the edge of the shipyards, covered in blood. Some sort of poodle-terrier thing lies in front of him, torn almost clear in half. A leash is attached to the dog, its owner missing, but screaming echoes from the line of weathered victorian houses on the far side of the street. People are starting to come out, staring at him.

(Chris: “These are the people Carlos used to harass, right?”
Jason: “Yes.”
Chris: “So they’re probably pretty wary of shadowy figures coming out of the shipyards.”)

Anstis starts meeting their gazes, telling them to come with him. One by one, their faces go blank and they walk calmly over to him. However, there are quite a few people, and he has to go one at a time, so as soon as the rest of the crowd realizes what’s happening, many of them pull out handguns and start firing at him.

(Chris: “See what Carlos had to deal with?”)

Bullets slam into Anstis. He ducks, ordering his Dominated-thralls forward to act as a shield. The gunmen stop firing, but new people run forward wielding baseball bats and start wailing into him. He collapses to the broken ground.

(Jason: “On the plus side, they’re probably not going to kill you, cause it’s hard to kill a vampire with bashing damage, and you look dead anyway. But the bad news is they may well curb-stomp your ass into jelly.”)

Low on blood and options, and quickly racking up broken bones, Anstis goes for broke. He uses the last of his resources to pop his claws, dropping him into a frenzy.

(Jim: “Urg, Colleen, my situation is as bad as yours!”
Me: “…Is it?”)

#

(Jason: “Who should be next?”
Chris: “…Rabenholz?”
Jason: “Well I was thinking about Paul, but you’re right, we will go to Rabenholz. We’ll put Paul back on the back-burner for awhile, he’s dealt with some weird shit he needs to deal with.”
Chris: “He has. Also he’s going to read the abridged Les Mis to the gargoyle.”)

#

CITY MORGUE, SAN FRANCISCO GENERAL HOSPITAL

Rabenholz wakes up in a steel drawer, obviously the morgue. It’s likely he was dragged here along with the other victims of the hotel massacre. He ponders the best way to open the drawer from the inside, when suddenly the door is opened and he slides out. A man stands there, dressed as a morgue attendant, but by his aura he’s a ghoul. He peers down at Rabenholz nervously, and Rabenholz meets his eyes and Dominates him.

Answer me truthfully. Who knows I am here? Who knows my nature?”

The man gulps, eyes wide. “Just me.”

“How tough will be it be to remove myself from here?”

“We’ve got a formal process for this.”

Rabenholz frowns. “I wish no one to know I was here.”

“I’ve…got to tell the Justicar….”

Rabenholz’s Dominate intensifies. “You recall there was nothing exceptional about me. Just a normal human body, died in a manner consist with everyone else in the room.

The man nods blankly, then starts to close the drawer.

Rabenholz yells to stop, just before it closes, then refines the command, telling him to simply forget he was here and tell no-one. The man leaves, then Rabenholz gets up, dons a pair of scrubs, and walks out of the building.

#

SUTRO TOWER

Georgia wakes up on one of the cots in the lab, the space whale curled up at her feet. She finds her original, non-umbrella suit robed hung up nearby, dons them, then comes out into the lab to find Dr. vonNatsi in a fresh labcoat and entirely new pair of goggles, futzing with something on a table. Jawahar is slumped on a lab stool watching him, chin braced dejectedly in his hands.

“Doctor! Jawahar! Good evening!” Georgia hails.

vonNatsi whirls, a tuning fork in one hand and a salad fork in the other. “Ms. Johnson! I must begin the application of the Plutonian ambergris!”

Georgia peers at the table. “Do you need help with that?”

“Nein, nein, it is a tedious task. Normally I vould assign a graduate student to such verk, but zis requires very precise manipulations, and I have made the calculations mein self.” He pings the salad fork against the machinery on the table. It hums like a tuning fork. “Zerefore, it shall take me some time to do zis. BUT,” he leans toward her, “Ven I have completed it, zen ve shall begin ze most important stage in prepairing and creating and activating…ze golem.”

Georgia claps excitedly. “Excellent! I look forward to seeing it!”

vonNatsi nods and stabs the tuning fork into a bowl of (cabbage-free) salad nearby. “In ze meanwhile, I do not vish to keep you from your own studies into ze scientific method.”

“Oh, good point.  I should check on my household.  Also, I think Jawahar should stay with me.” She turns to him. “Jawahar, what do you say?”

Jawahar sighs and unfolds himself from the stool. “I suppose I could stay for a time. Where exactly is it that you live?”

“Just a mile or so from here, I’ll take you there.”

Georgia gathers her things—including her space whale—bids goodbye to Dr. vonNatsi, and leads Jawahar outside to wait for a car.

Jawahar stares into the night, breathing in the fog, and sighs, though this time it is with relief. “I very much appreciate you taking me out of that place. It turns out everything I learned about Etherites was incorrect.”

“Oh?”

“Yes, they are considerably more insane. I am also grateful we didn’t wind up in the clutches of he Void Engineers.” He shudders. “So if there’s anything I can do for you….”

Georgia looks at the space whale, once again perched on her shoulder, staring up at the ravens circling the tower. “Well, whatever gravity spell you put on the space whale seems to be working.”

“That is a temporary adjustment at best. For something more permanent, I will need more time.”

“Well, you can use whatever magical instruments I have at home for your work.”

He glances at her. “You have hermetic instruments there?”

Georgia frowns, but assumes that ‘hermetic’ means ‘magic.’ “…Yes?”

Jawahar frowns at her uncertain tone. “What is this place we’re going to?”

“It’s my home. Normally you wouldn’t be allowed inside, security measures and the like, but since I rescued you, and you rescued me, mutual trust is in order, so I’m sure it will be fine.” For a brief instance, Georgia’s grin falters. “And besides, half the city has been through there by now.”

#

ANSTIS’S LOCATION

Anstis comes to to find himself…under water. In human form, surprisingly, not octopus. He’s still hungry, still damaged, but there is blood in the water. By the taste of it, it’s from a large fish. He kicks his way to the surface and peers around.

He is in the middle of the bay, like the middle of the bay, a mile off-shore.

Anstis sighs. He is not having a good night.

He starts crawling his way toward shore, slowly. Since he’s still hungry, on the way he summons some sea lions for a snack. He slakes his thirst, but now more blood is clouding around him in the water. He starts swimming again, trailing streaks of red along with him.

Which makes it unsurprising when, a few minutes later, a sleek shape starts circling him in the darkness.

It’s a shark.

#

THE CHANTRY

Georgia and Jawahar arrive at the Chantry. Georgia opens the carved front doors and gestures Jawahar inside. He walks in carefully, staring around the polished stone foyer, and the various blood stains and smoke damage seeped into the rock. “What in the world is this place?”

Georgia closes the doors and spreads her arms grandly. “This is the San Francisco Tremere Chantry. Hopefully no one will bother us here, and you may stay as long as you like.”

Jawahar stops. “…The what?”

“The Chantry,” Georgia repeats brightly.

He turns to her, face ashen. “You’re…Tremere?”

“Yeah.” She hesitates, taken aback by his reaction. “Did you…not get that?” Bob suddenly appears around a corner, stopping as he sees them. Georgia smiles at him. “That’s my friend Bob, he’ll show you where you can stay. Bob, this is Jawahar, he will need a room. A nice room.”

“Oh, god….” Jawahar stumbles back, staring around him as if everything had suddenly snapped into focus.

Bob scurries over to Georgia, watching Jawahar nervously. “Is he a ghoul?”

“No.”

“Is he a vampire?”

“No. He’s sparkly, like Dr. vonNatsi.”

Bob stares. “I dont understand.”

“He does magic,” Georgia explains.

Bob frowns, puzzles. “He does magic, but…he’s not Tremere…?” Suddenly Bob’s face goes as pale as Jawahar’s. He backs away slowly.

“I know! Cool, right?” Georgia realizes then that Jawahar and Bob are staring at each other, both faces masks of horror. “…Wait, is this some sort of male competition thing?”

(Jason: “Give me an Intelligence-Occult roll please.”
Kara: “Does this count as ‘analytical’ specialty?”
Jason: “No.”
Kara: “Difficulty?”
Jason: “Six.”
Kara: “…Botch. On nine dice.”
Jason: “…You botched difficulty-six roll on nine dice?!”
Jim: “One of those nights!”
Jason: “…Words fail me. You actually have no idea what’s going on here.”
Kara: “I could re-roll the ten!”
Jason: “Not without ‘analytical’ you can’t. What’s your Occult specialty?”
Kara: “I don’t have one.”
Jason: “Well you best pick one.”
Kara: “…What will apply in this situati—“
Jason: “Nope!
Jim: “How about ‘rituals’?”
Kara: “No, rituals is boring, that’s why I didn’t put it down.”
Jason: “Okay, then how about ‘science’ with an exclamation point?”
Kara: “That’s my Science specialty!”
Chris: “…Wait, your Science specialty is ‘SCIENCE!’?”
Jason: “Oh my god, it actually is….”)

Georgia stares between them blankly. “Bob, you okay? What’s wrong?”

Bob raises a shaky finger. “Her…he’s a her….” He gulps. “…Hermes!” With that, Bob turns and runs down the hall.

“Huh.” Georgia turns to Jawahar. “Do you usually have that effect on people?” She looks him over. “You seem a bit pale as well….”

Jawahar turns to her slowly. His face is wan, but as he regards her, it hardens. The temperature in the foyer suddenly drops, the air between them literally chilling. Jawahar steps back, still staring at her, then erupts into flames.

Georgia blinks and steps back. “That…is not generally how guests behave when they enter the house—“

Massasa!” Jawahar’s voice resonates through the foyer. “You’re House Tremere, you’re one of the usurpers! The Betrayers!”

She looks around. No one else is here, so he must be talking about her. “…Is this about that Salubri mess again?”

In response his flames flare higher, followed by chanting in Sanskrit. The space whale leaps off her shoulder and bolts down the hall.

Georgia stares at the flames…then sighs. “This is most unorthodox.”

#

SAN LEANDRO RESERVOIR

Samir leans one long arm on the trunk above me. “Do you like people Tom? Are you one of those who believes he’s still people?”

(Me: “He thinks he’s people!”)

I glare. “I tend to float between different social circles at the moment.”

He points a claw at me. “Remember that you used to be people, and let that guide you, because, Tom, when I come to you—and I will come to you—and ask for you to fulfill this favor, I want to be certain that this is going to be done by someone who thinks highly of those who still breathe.”

I roll my eyes. He’s not wrong in his default assessment of vampires, he’s just an asshole. Maybe I can pawn him off on Paul, they seem right for each other. Still, I’m still concerned about what they may or may not know about Marcus, so decide to prod a little. “You seem to have quite a few impressions of me already. What has Sophia told you about…me?”

She tenses, but Samir chuckles and resumes pacing. “That you’re rash, that you enjoy violence and reckless behavior. And that you’re quite good at killing vampires who have forgotten where they once were from. A few other things as well, but the important thing, is that you’re very good at killing other vampires, and I have use of that. There are some vampires, you see, that I like even less than I like vampires in general.”

“Really. And who would those vampires be?” I ask flatly.

“Well, there are a few in particular who come to mind. I remember something about a child?” He pauses thoughtfully, then dismisses the thought with a hand wave. “But there are others as well. How well do you know your own clans?”

“I’ve been learning rapidly,” I grumble.

He leans forward, his golden eyes almost glowing in the gloom. “Have you ever heard of the Followers of Set?” He bares his teeth and hisses lightly on the last word, expelling hot breath over me. Intimidated into silence, I shake my head. “Suffice to say, if you remember enjoying what it’s like to breathe and be human, you would not like these vampires. I really do not like these vampires.”

He regards me a long moment, then stands up. “So. In any event. Do you agree to owing me a favor, which involves killing many vampires you probably wont like anyway? The others may ask for different things, but this is what I ask.”

I realize they’re waiting for an answer. I clear my throat. “Well I got no problem killing asshole vampires, but I got a lot of other things going on that I don’t seem to have a lot of control over, but I’m certainly happy to do my best when the opportunity should arise.”

Samir tilts his head. “I think I heard a yes in there somewhere.”

“I heard equivocating,” Stormwalker grumbles, fist clenching on the hilt of his sword.

I sigh. “…Yeah, alright.”

“Excellent.” Samir turns to Leeland, who shrinks back against his trunk. “Now, Leeland, was it? Let us talk about your library.” Samir reaches forward to grip and snap Leeland’s chains, then leads him a few yards away into the trees to talk privately.

“That went better than expected,” Stormwalker says, still gripping his sword tightly.

“Yeah, a lot better than expected,” Sophia says, watching Samir disappear into the trees. “I had to talk him down for three hours, Tom.”

That reminds me, “Wait, what time is it?”

Her eyes flick to her glass-display. “Almost seven.”

I groan and jerk against the chains. “Ah, shit, I need to meet a dragon in about an hour, is the car around here?”

Sophia glances at Sees-Faces, then up at Stormwalker. “We’re not done here yet, Tom,” she says softly. “You don’t just owe Samir, you owe all of us, individually. I mean, I already kinda owe you, so, we’re cool, but I can’t speak for them.”

I roll my eyes and turn toward the dire wolf. “Well, what the hell do you want? Scooby Snacks?”

Sees-Faces blinks, then bares three-inch fangs and growls like the rumbling of the earth.

I stare back unflinchingly. “Well, you know, I got a whole taco truck.”

Instantly, he stops growling. His ears perk forward and he sits back, panting and drooling excitedly. Sophia glares at him. “You just had a whole deer two hours ago!”

Stormwalker braces his sword against the ground and leans forward on it. “So Tom, you might find this more agreeable than the other request. You may find it less. But since you insist on dragging Sophie into your bullshit, and since she insists on allowing you to,” he glares at her and she looks away, “You’re now going to start working for me.” He levels the massive sword at me one-handed. “The Red Talons are up to something, and somehow your ass is at least peripherally involved. I want you to find out what’s going on.”

“What do you think we’ve been trying to do!? We’ve been tracking them down for a night and a half! All we’ve found out is they’re looking for some statue—“

“Oh, you mean this statue?” Stormwalker holds out a massive paw, Sophia begrudgingly pulls the bronze figure out of her bag and places it in his palm.

My irritation cools. “—Uh, yeah. So, see, my plan was, if the Talons want it, it’s probably not something we want them to have, so the best place to keep it would be in the hands of a better museum attendant than Leeland, one no-one’s going to fuck with.”

Stormwalker glares suspiciously. “You mean the Mokole.” He considers this, staring at the figure, tiny as a doll in his grip. “…No, I think we’ll hold onto it for now.” He hands it back to Sophia to put back in her bag. “But here’s whats going to happen. You’re going to continue looking into this business, from the vampire side.”

What vampire side? There’s one frog in Napa who doesn’t know shit—“

“Not anymore,” Sophia says softly, meeting my eyes. “We got word this afternoon, someone burned the winery to the ground.”

I stare. Jesus. I mean, Jean was an asshole but I certainly didn’t want him dead. Maybe he got out, but….

Stormwalker shrugs, completely unperturbed. “Well, you keep digging, and I’ll look into it from the werewolf side, and we’ll keep in touch.”

“Fine,” I grumble. “Well, I already got your phone number, so that’ll be easy at least.”

Stormwalker hesitates, then his eyes narrow, glaring at Sophia suspiciously. She suddenly finds herself suddenly preoccupied with her tablet.

He turns back and opens his long maw, perhaps to threaten me more, or rip off an arm for good measure, then suddenly whirls, ears perked, peering into the darkness. Sophia and Sees-Faces follow suit. Through the trees, I can see Samir staring in the same direction as well.

I glance around. “…Guys? What is it?”

A soul-chilling howl wends its way through the dark trunks of the woods. Stormwalker, Samir, and Sees-Faces start to growl, hackles rising. Sophia gropes at her bag, not for her shotgun, but one of the Panzerfäuste strapped to the back.

Stormwalker reaches out a single talon to slice my chains without even turning around. I stumble to the ground, then stare into the darkness with them. “Girl, what’s going on?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know, but I hope it’s not what I think it is….”

Stormwalker pulls Glitch out from under his leather strap and tosses it to the dirt at my feet. “Nice blade,” he growls, still staring away. “You might need it.”

The howl comes again, resonating from multiple directions. Sophia turns to me, face serious. “Talons.”

I crouch to pick up Glitch and stand next to her. Neither she nor Stormwalker protests. “What the hell they doing here, I thought they were in Marin?”

“They were,” she mutters. “But now they’re here, and by the sound of it, there’s more of them.”

END OF NIGHT

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