Jason: “When we last left off, these three had just joined a cult up in Humboldt, so I think we’ll start with Kara back at the Chantry.”
Kara: “So Anstis went up there too?”
Jason: “Yes. Anstis was remanded to the custody of these two, pending investigations into whether he did or did not murder Dr. von Natsi, along with, I think it was…eighteen other people? In Fort Funston and it’s immediate environs? After somebody decided to go completely nuts?”
Jim: “Well, it certainly wasn’t me!”
Jason: “You see, now that Tom is on ice, somebody else has to make all the stupid decisions.”
Chris: “You’re the Tom now.”
Georgia arrives at the Chantry, followed not long after by some of Bell’s men bringing her the remains of “von Natsi” shoved in a body bag. Bob meets her at the front door to tell her she has a phone call. She directs Bell’s men to dump the body bag into Bob’s arms and sweeps past him.
Bob stumbles under the weight. “Would you like me to mulch this for you?”
“No, ice it please, we need to investigate it.” She goes to her office and picks up the phone.
“Georgia Johnson?” an unfamiliar male voice answers.
“This is Vannevar Hughes.”
“Oh!” Georgia says brightly. “What can I do for you, Mr. Hughes?”
“A great many things,” he replies smoothly. “You can start by explaining yourself.”
Georgia gestures vaguely. “I’m a very complicated woman, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to give me more of a starting place than that.”
“I’m afraid I don’t. You see, you can play dumb with me and I can kill you for it. It just makes it easier to explain away. Or you can tell me what you know that I need to know so we can make this as painless as possible.”
Georgia hesitates a moment. “‘This’ being…your takeover of San Francisco?”
“‘This’ being the replacement of the late and dearly departed Max von Strauss with a new Regent. I assume you will not be objecting to this process that must be undergone and should have been undergone some weeks ago.”
“Ah.” Georgia taps at the desk nervously. “Well, I do have some quibbles–”
“Really, and what would those be?”
Georgia looks around the office. “You see, in the interim I had taken up the Regency and thought I was doing quite well–”
“And do you hold the rank of Regent as verified by Vienna?”
She sighs. “I do not.”
“So what standing do you have to have any objections whatsoever, acolyte? “
Georgia sighs again and sinks into her chair. “I feel we may have gotten off on the wrong foot.”
“I feel we might, so let’s start again. Acolyte Johnson, this is Regent Vannevar Hughes. I will be taking up residence in that Chantry in a few nights and I would very much appreciate it if you would prepare for my arrival. You can begin doing that by telling me everything I need to know.”
“I would be delighted to make your transition easier,” she says evenly.
“I am so glad to hear that. It would be so unfortunate if you interpreted ‘preparations’ to mean ‘some kind of counter-ploy.’”
“Oh no, no misinterpretations here. Here’s what you need to know.” She starts ticking off fingers in the air. “The city is a complete wreck, it has been plagued by many different things, including lupines, the sabbat, a terrifying methuselah that wants to eat all his childer, vampires eating each other and killing primogens, there have been a couple explosions, there was a dragon, things have been stolen from the Chantry and then some of them have been reclaimed, there were Tzmitsce….” She trails off, then shakes her head. “I know I’m forgetting things, but I have reports.”
There’s a long pause before Vannevar responds. “…Every report you have would be invaluable. Send them directly to the Chantry in St. Augustine.”
“Oh, has Seattle not forwarded them to you?”
“I haven’t asked. I won’t be holding San Francisco as a fief of the Seattle Oberchantry.”
“Oh?” Georgia says curiously. “What will it be?”
“That’s none of your concern, acolyte. You’re being reassigned.”
Now Georgia is silent a long moment. “…Is that a euphemism?”
“In no way is that a euphemism. You will go to Vienna and it will be an opportunity for you to excel in the myriad skills you have demonstrated in surviving the incompetence of your previous superior.”
“I see, so I’m going to be hunted and killed,” Georgia says curtly.
Vannevar laughs. “Of course not, what do you think we are? The Sabbat?” His voice drips with sarcasm, then sobers instantly. “Are you objecting to an assignment, acolyte?”
“Oh no, of course not. I would object to being killed, but since it sounds like it is not that, then I am all too happy to comply in every way.”
“I am overjoyed to hear. My staff will be preparing and moving in within a few nights.”
Georgia nods. “I look forward to–” Vannevar hangs up before she can finish her sentence.
(Jason: “Kara, are your notes for that exchange just going to be, ‘Shit’?”
Chris: “Won’t the warmages want to come back into the Chantry?”
*silence a moment*
Kara: “…You’re a genius.”
Jim: “When Vannevar gets here is a hilarious time to invite the warmages back in!”
Jason: “…Would you actually believe that is not the solution I thought you would come to?”)
Georgia is still staring thoughtfully into space when Bob suddenly sticks his head in the room. “Um, Regent, there’s someone at the door?”
She frowns at his questioning tone. “Oh, who is it?”
“I don’t know, but it looks like he’s wandering around the block looking for the entrance.” Bob wrings his hands. “He has a sword.”
Georgia mentally accesses the wards to peer outside. The large, armed shape wandering up and down the block is clearly Emperor Norton.
She gets up and heads to the front door, forcing it open with a heavy squeal and sticking her head outside. “Emperor!”
Norton stops a few feet away and turns. “Ms. Johnson….” Suddenly he rushes forward, grabbing her shoulders. “DOOO YOU SEEEEEE!!?!” he roars.
Georgia smiles into his manic face. “Yes, thank you for the hint not to kill anyone! It was very helpful!”
He peers closer. “You have seen…but DO YOU SEEE!??”
“Not yet. Can you help me see?”
His face works through a series of emotions. “…Yes…yes…No.”
Georgia sighs. “Come inside.” She pulls Norton into the foyer and closes the door. “Bob, fetch a drink for the emperor.”
Bob, lurking at the entrance to the hall, freezes. “Emperor? What is he an emperor of?”
Georgia stares a moment, but rather than responding, she steps to the side and gestures grandly at Norton, who is already inhaling. “I am EMPEEEEEEEOR of THEEEEESE UNITED STAAAAATES!!!!! AND PROTECTOR OF MEXICOOOOOOO!!!!!!”
Georgia waits for the echoes to die down. “Mostly of San Francisco,” she clarifies for the stunned Bob. “He’s also the Primogen of Clan Malkavian.”
Bob, still slack-jawed, nods. “Oh, I’ll prepare the exsanguinatory.”
Georgia holds up her hands. “No no no, we’re allies. Friends.”
“Oh. Then I’ll prepare the dead body.”
“Not that one, pick a different one. Or just bring some blood from storage.” Bob nods and runs off. “Something nice!” she shouts after him.
“Ms. Johnson,” Norton rumbles, still looming in the center of the foyer, “It’s all connected. All of it….”
She tilts her head. “Like a spider web?”
“No….” Norton leans closer. “…Like a web. From a spider.”
Georgia nods, enthralled. “Cool.”
“Perhaps.” Norton frowns, staring at the walls around them. “Fire. I can see the fire, it is EVERYWHERE!!!”
Georgia follows his gaze to the cold stone. “So…Dr. von Natsi was not killed tonight,” she says conversationally.
Norton shakes his head absently. “No, no he was taken.”
“Taken? By…That One?”
Kara: “Marcus’s grand sire. Or great-grandsire.”
Jason: “…You mean Perpenna? No, he’s Marcus’s sire.”
Kara: “Oh, yeah.”
Jason: “Marcus’s great-grandsire may actually be Lasombra himself.”)
“No…by another.” Norton turns to her, eyes burning like the fire only he can see. “One who stands for all to lie. Who chairs the confederation of ash. Who smiles across the table at the death’s head!”
Georgia blinks. “Okay, that sounds dark.”
Norton steps toward her. “He waits for the fire. He waits for it, you see. He waits because he thinks he knows but he does NOT KNOW!!!!” Suddenly he lunges forward, grabbing her shoulders again. “DO YOU SEEE???//??>”
She leans back as far as she can in his grip. “Noo…?”
“Then you shall!” He grabs the sides of her face. Instantly, everything goes black.
The camp of the Knights of the Yellow Rose is in a frenzy of activity, lit by every single spotlight lining the perimeter. Men move everywhere, hefting guns and loading vehicles. Ruland moves slowly through the center of it all, his frail form an eye in the storm as he calls on his men to arm themselves for battle, that they may storm the city of the beasts.
On the ridge just beyond the camp, Scout crouches in shadow, watching it all. After escaping from the church, she made her way to the fence line, quickly finding a rusted gap and slipping through. Now, deeply obfuscated and safely removed from Ruland’s penetrating stare, her tension eases, and she observes the compound with a calculating eye.
Rabenholz and Anstis eventually emerge from the church, two more points of stillness in the swirling activity. Scout watches them a long moment, then pulls out her phone to send a text message to…someone. A minute later it buzzes in a response. She reads it, puts the phone away, and returns to observing.
Ruland stops his proselytizing as Rabenholz and Anstis approach him, once again somehow sensing them without sight. He turns toward them and smiles. “Will you come, my brothers? Will you come to see the fire?”
“We will watch,” Rabenholz replies. “When do we depart?”
“We depart immediately. We will go and sanctify the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah.” His gaze swims as he peers toward Rabenholz. “Do you wish to sanctify for the Lord?”
Rabenholz, meanwhile, is slowly fighting his way through the strangely-pious mental fog that Ruland’s presence inspires. He scans the shadows at the edges of the camp, looking for any movement that might indicate a small female figure. “…Oh, yes, absolutely,” he says absently.
Anstis, meanwhile, is having more trouble recovering from whatever pall Ruland cast over them. He stumbles away to help some of the men load the trucks. Ruland also moves off to bark more orders. Finding himself alone, Rabenholz steps to a quiet area and calls Bell.
“Mr. Rabenholz,” Bell answers. “I hope you have good news.”
“The Knights of the Yellow Rose will be attacking Sacramento early this morning,” Rabenholz says cooly.
“Good,” Bell says, equally emotionless. “Make it as public as you can. I’ll talk to Prince Marshall.”
“I imagine he won’t be very happy.”
“I don’t care.”
Rabenholz nods and continues. “The leader here–a Mr. Ruland–seems to have an unusual way of persuading people. ‘gone through the experience myself this evening. It was…unusual to say the least.”
“Define unusual,” Bell asks suspiciously.
“He inspired feelings of remorse in me I haven’t felt in four centuries. The compulsion to believe what he said was the word of god was very strong” Rabenholz glances at Anstis, grinning with a stronger-than-usual self-satisfied air as he helps the other men work. “Very, very strong, for some. “
Bell grumbles. “Keep an eye on this Ruland, then. If need be, I’m sure you three can take care of it.” He hangs up.
Rabenholz puts the phone away. He walks through the activity, gradually making his way toward the outer areas of the compound, clearly in sight of the forest just beyond, in case anyone out there is watching.
Scout watches Rabenholz’s progress. His movements–slow and purposeful–mark him from the rest of the crowd currently swirling to Ruland’s whim. Suspecting this means he’s come back to his senses, Scout starts to make her way down toward him, but remains obfuscated just in case.
Which makes it all the stranger when a hand suddenly grabs her shoulder.
Scout freezes as long fingers dig into her collarbone. “Have you found Jesus?” a Southern voice drawls in her ear. The male voice is younger than Ruland’s, but dripping with the same promise of Hellfire.
Me: “Seriously, TWO characters now and that fucker is still breathing down my neck!?”)
Hot, living breath plays across her neck. She turns with slow, measured movements to see a tall man, in a long dark coat and a wide dark hat, with mirrored sunglasses and grinning like a cheshire cat. It’s not a man she recognizes (though the rest of us certainly do.)
Deep in the frenzy of activity, Anstis is helping men load boxes of ammunition into a pickup truck. He turns to get another armful then stops. A dark figure is standing behind him who wasn’t there a moment before, arms spread in welcome.
“I have come to spread the word, my brother,” says Jeremiah Flagg.
Rabenholz is pacing the fenceline, staring into the trees, when he sees a dark-robed figure step out of the shadows before him. Rabenholz stops.
“Have you come to know what it is to believe?” Flagg drawls at him with a bourbon-smooth voice.
Rabenholz regards him a moment. “Yes, I have. May I help you?”
“You may. You may yet.” Flagg steps forward. “Do you know what it is to serve the Lord?”
Anstis’s eye narrows, but he nods at the dark-clad preacher. The men still loading the truck ignore them both. “Flagg. It’s good to see you again.”
Flagg smiles and raises his arms to him. “Come hither, my son. I shall deliver you.”
“Are you joining us in Sacramento?”
“I am joining you…right now.” Flagg steps forward and embraces Anstis in a bear-hug.
(Chris: “…Wait, do they kiss?”)
“Do you know what the way to salvation is, my sister?” Flagg asks Scout gently, but his hand on her shoulder grips tight.
She blinks into his sunglasses. By the lack of reflection, the obfuscate is still working, but somehow he’s staring right at her. “I…know the ways that have been pointed out to me. They’ve all been false.”
“Then shall I tell you the truth?” Flagg leans forward. “Do you know what it is to love Jesus?”
She lifts her chin. “No.”
Slowly, Flagg reaches his other hand under his long coat and draws out a bowie knife, half-again as large as her own, and grins sickly. “Sacrifice….” he purrs.
In one movement, she grabs her knife from her waist and swipes it up to slice off his offending hand, but at the apex of the arc she fumbles, missing his wrist and dropping the knife to the dirt.
Flagg’s smile doesn’t falter. “That’s it, my sister. Disarm yourself and embrace the servant of the Lord.” His grip tightens, pulling her toward him. “Would you like to know what it is to be welcome into the arms of God?”
A deep, deep growl suddenly echoes from shadows of the woods behind him. Flagg stops, then, inexplicably, grins wider. “Well, the lamb and the lion shall lie down together, and the little child shall lead them.” He lets go of her shoulder, turns, and spreads his arms to the darkness. “Come forth, my brother!” he shouts.
Instantly, Scout dives to the dirt, grabbing her knife and rolling back to her feet. She comes up running, bolting into the forest.
“Come back, sister!” Flagg shouts after her, his voice echoing through the trees. “Do not swim in the waters of inequity! You shall know despair!”
Flagg takes a step toward Rabenholz. “Do you know what it is to serve the Lord, or do you only know what it is to serve yourself?”
Rabenholz regards him evenly. “I know that as well.”
Flagg smiles and lifts a hand. “Will you come with me?”
Rabenholz glances at the activity around them. “I believe Uncle Ruland has appointed me with a task at the moment, I would hate to disappoint him. If you would elaborate on your purpose, perhaps I can help you at the same time.”
Flagg smile widens. “I’m on a mission from God.”
(Me: “And he’s wearing sunglasses, hey!”)
Rabenholz nods concedingly. “Then I should hate to impede you.”
“You cannot impede me. I am going now, and soon, but tarry thou until I return.” Still grinning, Flagg slowly backs up into the shadows behind the building. Moments later, he’s gone.
(Jason: “Chris, Perception + Occult, followed by Intelligence + Academics.”
Chris: “That…looks like six successes, then…three.”
Jason: “Something is off, something is weird. You feel different, like something has been disturbed in your personal wa, or whatever it is. Something untraceable, but you feel something off. Simultaneously, what he said when you started to feel that. ‘I am going now, and soon, but tarry thou till I return’? You recognize that. It’s from the legend of the Wandering Jew. The story goes, while Jesus was carrying the cross, a Jew shoved him aside and said get out of my way. Jesus replied, essentially, with that phrase and cursed the man so that he would never die. He would wander the world forever until Jesus returned. A strange thing to bring up, given you’re a vampire, and immortal anyway.”)
Rabenholz stares into the shadows thoughtfully a long moment, then turns back to survey the activity of the compound. Men are still loading the trucks nearby, but Anstis has stopped. He is standing in the middle of an open space between the buildings, motionless, with a strange look on his face. The rest of the men moving around him don’t glance his direction, but they all give him a wide berth.
Rabenholz flags down a man carrying what looks like a rocket launcher. “Why are you avoiding that man?”
The man follows Rabenholz’s point toward Anstis. “He’s in rapture,” the man says simply.
“Hmm. Have you been in rapture?”
The man grins. “Oh yeah. I found Jesus in 1996. I’ve been fighting the muslim-commies ever since.”
“I’m sure you have.” Rabenholz walks away and approaches Anstis. “Captain?”
Anstis continues staring dreamily into space. After a moment, Rabenholz taps him on the shoulder. Slowly, Anstis blinks and his gaze focuses on Rabenholz. Instantly, he falls serious. “Rabenholz. Flagg is here.”
“I have no idea who you are talking about.”
“Jeremiah Flagg. A preacher, in a long coat and hat.”
Rabenholz frowns. “I just had an encounter with him myself.”
“He’s a Hunter, a powerful one. Strongest I’ve ever seen.” Anstis glances around, but as his gaze falls on the church, it starts to drift off into dreaminess again.
Rabenholz follows his gaze, then steps in front of it. “You seem quite enthralled with Mr. Ruland. I must say, in the moment it was exhilarating for me as well. But it is wrong, those are not my own thoughts and feelings. Neither are they yours.”
“He touched me and I felt…a strange remorse….” Anstis says vacantly, then shakes his head and focuses again. “But Flagg is worse. I saw him once in the underworld. Thousands of spirits whirl in a maelstrom around him.” Anstis shifts nervously. “I’ve also seen him die. He’s been struck down and risen again, over and over.”
Rabenholz frowns and stares into the shadows as the armed crowd churns around them. “That is troubling.”
Georgia wakes up…in her bed. Tucked in carefully with no sign of injury. She sits up. The room is empty but for MewMew sitting on the dresser looking at her.
“Good evening,” Georgia says to the space-whale-cat. “Have you been fed yet?”
MewMew blinks slowly, then looks to the door. Moments later there’s a knock, followed by Bob’s voice. “Regent? Are you alright?”
Georgia climbs out of bed and opens the door. Bob winces instinctively. “Yes I’m fine,” Georgia says. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, I came back up with the blood glass like you asked and you were on the floor.”
Georgia peers past Bob into the hall. “Where’s Emperor Norton?”
“He’s not here. I looked everywhere, even in the exsanguinitory!”
“Huh. Well, it’s good to check.” Georgia shrugs and walks to the dresser to scratch MewMew.
Bob hovers at the threshold. “Are you okay, Regent? When I found you, you were…” he gulps. “…dead.”
“Well, I’m always dead.”
“But…more dead. Like, dead-dead.”
“Interesting.” MewMew hops off the dresser with a thud and strides away. “What did you do with me?”
“Well, first I tried to wake you up, and it didn’t work. But then I remembered that there’s a passage in the ghoul’s handbook about this sort of situation. It said that if I did the wrong thing, you would eat me.” Bob edges away from the cat as it walks out the door. “Did I do the right thing?”
“Yes,” Georgia says reassuringly. “What did you do?”
Bob wrings his hands. “Well, I tried to find the ghoul handbook to tell me what to do, but your tall friend with the beard and the cane threw those out. So since I couldn’t find the book, I put you in your chambers.”
Once again Georgia checks herself for any sign of injury and comes up with nothing. “Well, that worked out pretty well. Good job.”
Bob’s hands wring faster. “Does this mean I don’t get tortured?”
“Oh! Oh good!” He slumps against the door frame. “I avoided eating last night, so I wouldn’t throw up on you if you tortured me.”
“Well, go have some food.” She gestures dismissively and Bob runs off.
(Kara: “I wonder what ever happened to Wolfgang.”
Jason: “That’s a good question. Did you check the exsanguinatory?”
Jim: “Which one?”)
Flashes of memories return to her as she heads down to her office, images she saw after Norton grabbed her. Vague impressions of faces and names, but mostly fire. Lots of fire. Enough that she feels skittish even remembering it.
Georgia settles herself at her desk and calls Victoria Lovelace. The vampire and the mage exchange very polite pleasantries, all while dancing around the issue of Warmaster Mwonge and the warparty eventually intending to invade the Chantry. Eventually, Georgia asks Lovelace if she perchance knows the current whereabouts of Dr. von Natsi and briefly describes the scene at the tower the previous evening.
“Someone attempted to murder Dr. von Natsi?” Lovelace asks, concern edging into her refined voice.
“I actually believe the entire scene was a setup to frame someone else,” Georgia says.
“Another associate of mine, Captain…um….”
(Kara: “What’s your name?”
Kara: “What’s your last name?”
Kara: “Oh. What’s your first name?”
Chris: “Dammit, Tom!”
Jason: “Now that Tom isn’t here to fuck up, Tom will fuck up!”
Me: “Oh, hey, so it is all Tom’s fault!”)
“An associate of mine, Captain Anstis. Who is a great deal of trouble, to be sure, but I do not think he had anything to do with harming Dr. von Natsi.”
“…Is Dr. von Natsi alright?” Lovelace asks, her concern a notch higher.
“I suspect he is, though he is missing.”
Lovelace sighs and is quiet a moment, then recollects herself. “…So someone created a rather convincing facsimile of the dead body of Dr. Siegfried von Natsi, violently destroyed it, and implicated your associate?”
“Why would they do this?”
Georgia sighs. “I haven’t the first clue.”
“Well, I shall make inquiries as I may, but unfortunately I am not presently anywhere near Earth.”
“Not a problem, I understand.”
“Very good then. Thank you for keeping me in the loop, as they say, and do have a pleasant evening.”
Lovelace hangs up. Her comment about keeping in the loop hangs heavy in Georgia’s mind, though, so after a moment she picks up her phone again to call Paul to check on the status of the werewolf cub and laboriously catch him up on everything that’s been going on.
Ruland’s men are finally finishing with their preparations and gathering in an open space near the center of the compound. Rabenholz and Anstis follow the crowd. “We should find Scout,” Rabenholz says. “Perhaps we can convince her to go before Uncle Ruland.”
Anstis swaggers next to him, but his eye darts across the crowd. “If Flagg is here, I don’t think even the three of us could take him.”
Rabenholz nods once. “I trust your judgement on this part. There are a number of creatures more powerful we should deal with.”
“BROTHERS!” Ruland’s voice suddenly shouts. The crowd stills. A pickup truck is parked in front of the church. Uncle Ruland is standing on a pedestal in the back, draped in his full Grand Dragon ceremonial robes, the mask of his white hood pinned up to reveal his face.
Rabenholz leans toward Anstis. “Mr. Anstis, I don’t understand, why is he dressed like a spooky ghost?”
Anstis stares back at him. “What do you mean? Ghosts don’t look anything like that.”
Ruland lifts his arms to the heavens. “My brothers…. Come forth and be cleansed of your sins, that you may march into battle as servants of the Lord!”
Two fatigue-clad men step forward, one carrying a tray and the other a very large bowl. They hold them up for Ruland. The tray is piled with small white objects. Ruland takes one, lifts it to the sky and chants about the power of Jesus lifting up the righteous.
“Those look like Hostien,” Rabenholz mutters. “Altar bread,” he clarifies, after Anstis’s confused look.
Ruland lowers the wafer, but instead of placing it back on the tray, he dips it into the bowl. The wafer comes up dripping red. Ruland places the wafer onto the tongue of the man holding the bowl. The man closes his mouth and smiles, eyes fluttering in ecstasy. Ruland repeats the ritual for the man holding the tray, who responds similarly. The rest of the men gathered before them start lining up to receive the blessing as well.
“I don’t recall seeing anything like this in the Christian rituals I’ve witnessed,” Rabenholz mutters.
“Nor I,” Anstis agrees.
The wind changes suddenly, bringing a whiff from the bowl. It’s not wine, it’s blood. The smell is intoxicatingly powerful, but something about it seems…off. Rabenholz and Anstis watch as each of Ruland’s soldiers accepts a blood-soaked host and reel with the pleasurable power of it.
Rabenholz watches the men closely as they step away from Rulands impromptu alter. Although entranced, they seem subtly healthier. Brighter. “He’s…ghouling them, after a fashion….” Rabenholz muses.
“How? He’s not a vampire.”
Rabenholz tips his cane toward the bowl. “I would wager that isn’t Ruland’s blood. But vitae is the only substance I’m aware of to cause that sort of effect, but something is off.” He glances at the pirate. “I don’t suppose you possess the sort of thaumaturgy necessary to analyze the blood?”
Anstis shrugs. “I have some skill. How about yourself?”
Rabenholz looks away. “I’m afraid that’s a talent I never picked up.”
(Jim: “Do I believe you?”
Chris: “You trust me!”
Jason: “You DO trust him, he is the source of all that is right and good!”
Chris: “Best roll ever….”)
Anstis looks at the bowl and scowls. “I really don’t wish to imbibe that.”
“Well, you can taste it and not swallow,” Rabenholz offers reasonably.
Scout doesn’t stop running till she reaches the hole in the compound fence. She ducks into the shadows under a tree nearby, back pressed against the bark, listening. No footsteps, no breath, nothing approaches her. She fiddles with her knife as she scans the darkness, turning it in her hands and testing the hone of the blade. Finally, convinced she’s alone again, she ducks through the fence and makes her way back into the compound, obfuscated.
She follows the noise of the crowd to the center of the compound and finds Rabenholz and Anstis near the back edge of it, talking. She lurks nearby, listening to them discuss Ruland’s strange ceremony. By their skepticism, she gathers that they are no longer under whatever mind control happened before, but she remains obfuscated just in case.
Until she senses something watching her, something on the far side of the crowd. It doesn’t take her long to find it: Flagg is there, his hat marking him clearly amongst the soldiers, but instead of moving toward Ruland he is watching her, grinning. His grin widens as she sees him and he raises a hand to beckon to her. His mouth moves, and a whisper winds through her mind:
Come to me, my child….
Her feet take a step forward. She stops herself, tearing her gaze away, but can still feel his pull drawing her. She ducks away, hiding behind a nearby steel-walled quonset hut. The moment he’s out of sight the compulsion dims. After a few steadying breaths, she grips her knife tightly and peeks her head around the edge of the building.
Flagg is gone.
Anstis joins the line of soldiers moving toward Ruland’s blessing. As he reaches the front, Ruland smiles and lifts a blood-soaked wafer toward him. “Will you be cleansed with the blood of the lamb?”
“Aye.” Anstis opens his mouth and accepts the host. The soft starch dissolves on his tongue before he can gag at the solid food.
(Jason: “This is the best fucking blood you’ve ever tasted. It’s intoxicating. It’s invigorating. It’s insanely good. You want swallow the wafer, you don’t care if you vomit it back up. Fuck, you want to down the entire bowl.”)
Anstis stares covetously at the bowl before him. “Could I perhaps have a cup?”
All movement around him stops. Men turn to look at him. Ruland frowns and peers at him with his milky stare. “…A cup? Are you a son of perdition?”
Suddenly, Rabenholz appears at Anstis’s shoulder. “You’ll have to forgive him. He’s become enraptured with the moment and is failing to use the language properly.”
Ruland’s blind eyes stare through Rabenholz, but slowly his unearthly grin returns. “Will you be cleansed with the blood of the lamb, my son?” Ruland dips another wafer and lifts it toward Rabenholz. After a moment, Rabenholz accepts it.
(Jason: “The blood is incredible, but it is also like nothing you’ve ever tasted before. You do not know what the hell it is. Are you using Path of Blood?”
Chris: “Yes, but I’m not letting Anstis know.”
Jason: “Okay. What does that tell you?”
Jim: “It tells you if the subject is a vampire.”
Jason: “Yes, the subject is a vampire.”
Jim: “How much blood remains in its system?”
Jason: “Quite a bit.”
Jim: “Approximate generation?”
Jason: “I’m going to go with roughly eight.”
Jim: “And whether it’s ever committed diablerie.”
Jason: “Oh yes. But even with all that, that doesn’t explain everything you’re tasting. This isn’t just some random 8th-gen’s blood.”)
Scout crouches against the cold metal of the quonset hut as she watches the rest of Ruland’s ritual. Once all the men have received their strange communion, the man bearing the bowl walks away toward the hut. As he approaches, she can see by the shadows that the bowl isn’t quite empty. He carries the bowl into the hut. After a moment, she ducks in after him.
The building is filled with stacks of boxes and shelves for storage, but the man walks past them, heading toward the back. A funnel is mounted into a countertop, attached to a pipe that plunges straight down into the concrete floor. The man pours the remaining contents of the bowl into this funnel, then sets the bowl down and leaves the building. Scout approaches hesitantly and examines the bowl. The smell wafting off the drying streaks inside makes her reel. Very deliberately, she puts the bowl back down and moves away from it.
Her foot catches on something. A metal grate is embedded in the floor next to the counter, bolted with hinges and a handle. She pries it open, revealing a shaft and a ladder disappearing down into the earth. She stares a moment, double checks that the building is empty, then lowers herself onto the ladder to climb down.
Fifteen feet down, she lands in a short concrete-lined tunnel leading to a heavy metal door. Enough light filters down the shaft for her to examine it. The door is iron, bolted with heavy bars. Sliding bars, and all on the outside of the door.
A view hole about an inch high is cut into the left door. She carefully peers through. The space beyond is pitch-dark, with no clues to give a sense of how big it is, or what’s inside.
But there’s a sound. A wet, organic sound, like something slurping. Something large. She backs away from the doors, and that’s when she notices a pipe emerging from the stone next to the shaft, running along the length of the tunnel to disappear in the rock next to the door. Liquid seeps from the seams of the pipe. She touches a finger to it. It’s blood, smelling just as rich as the streaks in the bowl outside.
(Jason: “What do you do?”
Me: “Well I don’t open that fucking door, that’s for sure.”)
Scout takes another step away from the door and backs into something. Something soft and clothed. She turns. It’s Flagg, grinning right at her, through the obfuscate and the darkness.
“Have you come to bear witness?” he drawls. “To see its magnificence? It’s glory?” He takes a step forward and stares past her, toward the iron doors. “They didn’t know what they had. They didn’t see what it was. They thought they served the Lord, but they didn’t.” He turns to her. “Do you? Do you serve the Lord? Or do you serve…something else?” He draws the last word out in a long hiss.
Scout reacts instantly, slashing her knife across Flagg’s throat. Blood wells up, spilling onto his dark coat. He gurgles and stumbles back.
She doesn’t wait for him to fall, shoving past him to reach the ladder. As she starts to climb, his voice calls out, clear, “Don’t run! You can’t run…from the SERVANTS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS!!!”
There’s a long, slow squeal, like a bar being drawn back across an iron door.
Scout climbs faster. As she scrambles out the top of the shaft, another shriek of metal echoes from below, followed by the sound of heavy movement approaching the ladder. She shoves the grate closed. There’s no lock, so she pulls a shelving unit down on top of it.
(Jason: “Yeah, that wouldn’t even stop a normal vampire.”
Me: “Well…I tried.”)
A long, low growl echoes up the shaft, rumbling the floor. Scout turns and bolts out the door.
The crowd around Ruland’s truck stills as a deep rumble shakes the earth. Men glance around. Ruland looks up and frowns.
Rabenholz and Anstis also look around, the pirate sliding his vision into the spirit world. Wisps of spirits and ghosts dart like scattered fish, all of them clearly leaving the area around the compound.
“Something odd is afoot,” Anstis growls.
“You don’t say,” Rabenholz replies, gripping his cane.
Scout suddenly winks into existence next to Rabenholz’s shoulder, face grim. “They have something down there.
He frowns at her. “What do they have?”
She looks toward the quonset hut. “Something…evil.”
“It’s not evil, my sister,” Ruland’s quavering voice calls over the crowd. They turn to see him being helped down off the truck. “It’s something glorious!”
Rabenholz eyes the old man as he hobbles his way through the crowd, moving toward the hut. “Glorious indeed,” Rabenholz rumbles. “What is it?”
“He has come.…” Ruland gasps. “It is the hour. The fated hour!”
Rabenholz and Anstis trade glances. “Yes, to Sacramento!” Rabenholz shouts, raising his voice to the crowd and gesturing toward the waiting trucks.
Ruland, and the crowd, ignore him. All eyes are focused on the hut. Ruland takes another step forward. “To Sacramento, and to bleed the beast…,” he mutters, then raises his arms. “Come forth, my son! Shine in the righteousness of the Lord!”
Instantly, the door to the quonset hut is flung open. Metal wrenches as something massive forces its way through. The floodlights illuminate roiling muscle and matted fur that sloughs off as it shoves past the torn metal. The stench of rot rolls over the crowd and many step back. The thing steps clear of the hut and stands, unfolding to tower nine feet tall over the gathered men, chest heaving, recurved legs crouched, and long arms trailing to the ground.
It’s a werewolf, but something is very, very wrong.
(Jason: “Rabenholz has heard of this before. You’ve never seen it, but you’ve heard descriptions whispered amongst those who know more than they probably should. It’s something that shouldn’t be possible, something that shouldn’t exist.”
Chris: “…Is it an Abomination?”
Jason: “It’s an Abomination. For those who don’t know, an Abomination is what happens on the exceptionally rare occasions you actually manage to pull off embracing a werewolf.”
Jim: “Oh, fuck!”
Jason: “Suddenly the taste of that blood makes sense. It’s werewolf vitae. All the potency of werewolf blood and all the magic of vampire vitae.”)
Everyone freezes. Anstis, unable to contain his panic, drops into bird-form and explodes into the sky, but no one notices. The monster’s maw and talons drip with blood, the tantalizing smell overwhelming even the stench of rot. Red eyes, milky as Ruland’s, blink at the gathered crowd and it growls again.
Uncle Ruland forces his way through the motionless men and steps out in front of the monster, arms wide. “Come to me, my child. Become the instrument of our salvation!”
The werewolf blinks again, then sniffs. Its muzzle angles toward Ruland and it snarls, blood and saliva dripping down its fangs. Ruland steps forward, arms raised….
….And the ground trembles as the Abomination falls to its knees before him, hanging its head low.
“That’s it, child,” Ruland coos. He places a hand against the monster’s brow, then touches his own forehead to it. The two remain motionless a long moment, the watching crowd holding its collective breath.
Finally, Ruland looks up, vitae smeared across his face and dripped down his white robes. He turns to the crowd and smiles. “Tonight, my brothers…Babylon burns.”
Behind him, the Abomination throws back its head and howls, the soul-rending cry drowning out the cheers of the crowd and the sound of trucks roaring to life.
END OF NIGHT