Me: “Kara-Tremere is best Tremere.”
Jason: “I will say, Kara, of all the Tremere players I have seen–which isn’t a long list, but it’s not a short one either–Georgia is definitely my favorite.”
Kara: “Aw, thank you. I think.”
Jason: “Well the rest of them are just assholes, whereas Georgia is…many things, but not really an asshole.”
Kara: “No, no…but that doesn’t make her good, does it?”
Jawahar and Georgia appear in the circle back in Max’s office. “Are you familiar with Nephandi?” Jawahar asks as he steps out.
“No, what’s that?” Georgia asks.
Jawahar glowers. “I’m almost loathe to tell you.”
“Well that’s seriously going to slow down the investigation, isn’t it?”
Hearing his mistress’s voice, Bob wakes up from a doze on one of the chairs and scrambles off, a sheepish look on his face like a dog caught on the couch. The space whale, sprawled across the books on the desk, doesn’t even twitch. Dug and Domen, meanwhile, loom quietly near the bookcases (because we forgot they were supposed to be missing so they’re here now).
“It’s a figure of speech.” Jawahar paces the room. “A Nephandus is a mage, a true mage, but one who has come out the wrong way. An inverted mage, in a sense.”
Georgia walks to the desk and absently strokes the space whale. “Like…with intestines on the outside?”
“If only that were so. Nephandi are obsessed with destruction, unmaking, and reversion to chaos. They are quite possibly the most evil things in existence.” Jawahar wrings his hands as he paces. “In the Hermetic order we are taught that mages are to work toward a process we call ascension. A unifying metric for all mankind.” He pauses. “Or possibly just for ourselves, it’s left unclear. In any event, everyone has a different idea what ascension means, and whether it is real or not I cannot tell you, but Nephandi believe it’s real and that they must not allow anyone to achieve it.” He eyes her seriously. “They seek to unmake the world by any means they can. Consuming it in fire, in pain, in blood, destroying everything with world-shattering conjurations. That sort of thing.”
Georgia stares at him. “Okay. Cool.”
He stops and glares. “Not precisely the term I would use.”
“So what you’re saying is you know where I can find one, and you won’t mind if I take its awakened spark?”
“I would very much like you to take one,” he says seriously, “But I don’t know where you could find one directly. If I knew where a Nephandus was I’d find the place on the planet diametrically opposite from it and be there.”
Georgia considers this. “Would their awakened spark be tainted by all this backwardness?”
“It would be an inside-out awakened spark?”
“Could I turn it back right-side out? I mean, we have machines that kind of do that…,” she hesitates, “…with bodies….” she mutters.
He stares. “Are you talking about those extremely unreasonably large-scale industrial machines in your Chantry?”
“Oh no, those were the exsanguinators.”
(Me: “Kara-Tremere is best Tremere.”
Jason: “I will say, Kara, of all the Tremere players I have seen–which isn’t a long list, but it’s not a short one either–Georgia is definitely my favorite.”
Kara: “Aw, thank you. I think….”
Jason: “Well the rest of them are just assholes, whereas Georgia is…many things, but not really an asshole.”
Kara: “No, no…but that doesn’t make her good, does it?”)
Jawahar eyes her a long moment. “Do I want to know what you’re referring to?” he asks carefully.
“Well, you asked the question, so I assume you do–”
He holds up his hand to cut her off, then closes his eyes, takes a slow breath, and continues, “I doubt very seriously a Tremere Chantry has the means necessary to invert an avatar.”
“Well, perhaps we can ask Dr. vonNatsi for help, but I was planning on using the awakened spark to find Dr. vonNatsi, so I can’t very well use Dr. vonNatsi to get the awakened spark. “ She sighs and settles into a chair. “It’s all very circular.”
“It does seem to be that way. When we normally find Nephandi, we destroy them, and to do so we have to destroy their avatars as well. This is not an easy process.” Jawahar stops a moment, gaze distant. “However, even if you cannot reinvert an avatar from a Nephandus, you could perhaps acquire one that is less tainted.”
Georgia looks up. “But you said they were all evil?”
Jawahar nods seriously and resumes pacing. “There are two forms of Nephandi. The Barrabi are the first. They are mages who have gone mad and quite insane and capable of terrible acts, but they are the better option. The other option are the Widderslainte.” His gaze darkens. “I have heard them described as living arguments against free will….” He shivers, then continues. “See, avatars survive the deaths of their constituent mages and can be reborn into new forms. A Widderslainte is a Barrabi who’s died and whose avatar has come back even more broken. So Barrabi are the…somewhat…lesser form.”
He stops in front of her. “I recommend tracking down the avatar of a Barrabi. If you acquire one of a Widderslainte, I would expect it to possess you and use your corpse to do unspeakable things.” He hesitates. “In fairness, it is possible the same with happen with a Barrabi, but it is at least more likely you will master it. “
Georgia stares up at him, face blank. “Well. Alright then.”
(Jason: “Kara. It would be remiss of me not to mention that you could bypass a lot of this bullshit by using the avatar on hand.”
Kara: “Oh, I know.”)
Georgia’s fingers drum against her lap. She looks away. “This definitely sounds like it’s going to be a serious undertaking.”
“To bring down a Barrabi is no small thing,” Jawahar replies.
“It’s definitely going to delay our attempts to fix the Tremere clan. Which I know is something you’re concerned with,” she says carefully.
“But you’ve been patient so far.”
“I’ve done my best,” Jawahar sighs. He picks up a book from the desk and settles himself in another chair. “After all,” he mutters, “Impatience in these circumstances would seem imprudent.”
Rabenholz sits in the shadows under the Ferry Building, on a bench with its back against the wall. He gazes out over the bay, watching the patterns of lights flowing along the span of the Bay Bridge.
And doesn’t flinch when a hand suddenly taps his shoulder from behind.
“Good evening,” Rabenholz says without turning around.
“What news?” the gravely voice of Jalut rumbles.
Rabenholz tracks the progress of a man walking a dog along the waterfront. “The Chantry wards are down. Now is your time.”
The wall behind him growls. “There is a complication. The Tremere have returned to the Chantry. In force. They seek their secrets.”
Rabenholz nods. “I just came from the Justicar’s office. He seemed to feel their leadership, at least, had fled.”
The wall rumbles again. “We shall see.”
The sense of presence behind him fades. Rabenholz shifts on the bench and continues staring out over the water.
THE SUNSET DISTRICT
After leaving the Nosferatu warrens, Anstis continues on foot, barely aware of the sleepy neighborhoods he’s passing through, his mind preoccupied with the photo of Tuke and grasping for clues on who the one-eyed wraith could actually be.
A wraith with that strength and tenacity could only have come from a very old spirit, but no other people from Anstis’s living life match his appearance. But if the wraith isn’t the remnant of an old rival of his, then why did it take such an interest in him? And, moreover, why has it lasted in the underworld so long?
Anstis finally shoves these thoughts aside to focus on more immediate issues. Marcus was still missing when they returned from Shadowlands, but now that some time has passed Anstis attempts to call him again.
This time, Marcus answers. “Captain,” he grumbles.
“Ahh!” Anstis beams. “You’re back!”
“So it appears,” Marcus says, voice clearly irritated.
“I have also returned from interrogating the shade of Nitocris. Were you unable to join us by your own accord?”
“No. There was a difficulty.”
“Of what sort?”
“I don’t know,” Marcus snaps, “I wasn’t the one performing the magic.”
Anstis shrugs and continues. “The Settite’s leader during the attack was a man named Anektahken–”
“Anektahken?!” Marcus interrupts. “Anektahken is here?”
“Aye. Nitocris’s spirit confirmed it, though she said she didn’t trust him. She suspected he was corrupted against Set.”
“Anektahken corrupted against Set? That’s quite a suspicion, Anektahken is a Hierophant. Has he been cavorting with the wrong gods….”
“I cannot say for certain.” Anstis falls silent a moment. “Oh, Nitocris also mentioned you may want to check Candlestick Park for Helgi–”
“WHY DIDN’T YOU LEAD WITH THAT?!” Marcus roars
“–In the Settite nest underneath the ruins,” Anstis finishes lamely.
Marcus rages almost a full minute, cursing in Latin and other languages, then falls suddenly, eerily calm. “Well. Captain, fancy a show?”
A slow grin spreads across Anstis’s face. “Aye.”
“Because if Anektahken is at Candlestick, I suspect it will be a good one.”
Marcus hangs up.
Georgia leaves Jawahar reading in his chair and slips quietly out of the office. She walks aimlessly through the tunnels and caves of the island stronghold in silence, passing through the massive statue hall, and finally reaching the room with the murals. She pauses here, examining the frieze of presumably-Daedelus towering over the small figures of men, offerings of blood and bodies at his feet.
After a few moments she moves on, eventually making her way back down to the office. The gargoyles are still standing guard against the walls. Bob crouches in an out-of-the-way corner, chin nodding against his chest. The space whale eyes her dreamily from its post on the desk. Jawahar, though, is fast asleep in his chair, head lolled back, the book he was reading tented across his lap. Georgia approaches and looks at him a long moment, watching his chest rise and fall.
(Kara: “…She does the thing.”
Kara: “She doesn’t think about it. There can’t be any planning or hesitation. She has to just do the thing.”
*silence in the room*
Kara: “She has the impatience…virtue. She’s gotta just do it. There have been some mental gymnastics, she’s had to convince herself that delaying is too costly, that it would be too difficult and take much too long to go after a Nephandi, and that her chances of succeeding are low without assistance from Dr. vonNatsi, and she needs Dr. vonNatsi, so she’s gotta find a way to break that circle. Jawahar has been…absolutely steadfast in what he’s been desiring from her, and this accomplishes his goal.”
Jason: “Well, it may. She may still fail.”
Kara: “She doesn’t think she’s going to fail.”
Jason: “No, she doesn’t, does she?”
Kara: “So, is, Bob in the room, or…?”
Jason: “Bob’s in the room, but he’s not gonna say anything, he’s a Tremere ghoul. As are the gargoyles.”
Chris: “Well, Dug has a spark of consciousness now.”
Jason: “Yes, but not enough for this.”
Kara: “Okay….” *groans* “…Oh god, what do I roll?”
Jason: “Give me Dex + Brawl.”
Kara: *forlornly counts out her tiny dice*
Jason: “Think about it this way, Kara. It’s the ‘kiss,’ at least it will be euphoric.”
Kara: *shakes the dice, rolls, leans over to count* “…Okay, so, with a willpower, that’s…nine successes.”
Jim: “Ho-lee shit.”
Jason: *slow breath* “Kara? Do you know the best way to kill a mage?”
Kara: “Did I just discover it?”
Jason: “You did. The best way to kill a mage is by surprise.”)
In one movement, Georgia falls on Jawahar, driving her fangs into his exposed neck. He gasps once, then falls limp as the paralyzing ecstasy overwhelms him.
(Jim: “Wait, you have to kill him, not make him unconscious…?”
Kara: “I have to eat him.”
Kara: “I have to diablerize the mage.”
Jason: “Effectively, yes.”
Jim: “I thought that destroyed the spark?”
Jason: “Embracing does destroy the spark, but that’s not what Georgia is doing.”
Me: “But you can’t diablerize unless you embrace. It’s a catch-22.”
Jason: “Ahhh, no. Not quite the case. So, diablerie works because you drink someone’s blood and then you drink their soul. Now, normally you can’t do this to normal humans because when you drink all their blood, they die and take their soul along with them. But mages work a little differently because their souls aren’t quite as well-anchored to their bodies. Yes it does kill the mage, but remember what Jawahar said about Widderslainte? About how mages come back?”
Kara: “The soul releases so they can be reborn?”
Jason: “Exactly. Unless, of course, someone captures that spark before it flies free.”
Kara: “…This is enjoyable for him, right?”
Me: “Well, for a while….”)
Georgia drinks deeply, drawing the blood in a rush of heady effervescence; not like the adrenaline rush of werewolf blood, but a rich, sweet ambrosia. One that, for once, she’s allowed to gorge on.
Eventually, as the blood-flow slows, she senses something. Not the familiar moth-like fluttering of an embraced soul struggling in her grip, but a gentle wisp bobbing just out reach. The dark instincts within her surge, grabbing for it greedily, but it floats cloyingly out of reach.
(Jason: “This may be where some form of thaumaturgy is called for.”
Kara: “Okay…well…can I try the Path of Blood power that calls blood to me?”
Jason: “That might be a good place to start. What level is it?”
Kara: “Four…oh hey! And I have level four!”
Jason: “Good! I’d hate to think you ate him for nothing!”)
Georgia tenses, jaws still buried deep in flesh, and concentrates–
(Jason: “You’re gonna roll me the blood ritual, and then roll it two more times. You need three consecutive successes for this to work. Don’t botch.”)
–Drawing at the spark, drifting maddeningly out of reach, willing it closer, closer….
Suddenly, the spark is gone.
Georgia withdraws her fangs and sits up. The mage blood courses through her veins, but besides that rush, she doesn’t feel any different. She looks down at herself. Everything looks the same. She looks down at Jawahar, pinned underneath her.
His body is a shriveled corpse sprawled limply across the chair, the book still on its lap.
“Second Master?” Dug’s voice rumbles from across the room.
She gets up. “Yes Dug?”
“Was he an enemy, Second Master?”
She rests a hand on the corpse’s shoulder. “No Dug. He is an ally, a valued ally.”
“But you slew him, Second Master?”
She turns to the gargoyle, hands clasped in front of her. “I have absorbed him. I am going to use his abilities to finish what we began together.”
“I…” Dug stares at the body, then falls into a kneel. “…Of course, Second Master.”
Georgia scans the rest of the office. Bob is now fully awake, huddled by the bookshelf, watching her with wide eyes. Domen still stands unmoved in his corner, expressionless as a statue.
The space whale eyes her a long moment, then drops off the desk and strides out of the room.
Rabenholz is strolling quietly along the nighttime waterfront when his phone rings with an unlisted number. He answers.
“Pfalzgraf,” a smooth British voice greets him, “This is Dr. Everton.”
“Doctor. I hope you’ve had a chance to recover from earlier this evening.”
“Yes, something of a chance, rather. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m afraid I will be a bit late to our meeting later.”
“Oh well thank you very much for the notification.”
“Yes. Completely unforeseen, but our difficulties at the Pyramid have necessitated me elevating a certain matter. I’m terribly sorry.”
Rabenholz strides in silence a few moments. “Shall I wait for you this evening, or shall we reschedule?”
“This will not take long, I should think. Let’s still endeavor to make our appointment later this evening. The Legion of Honor, was it not?”
“Yes. I shall see you then, Doctor.”
Rabenholz hangs up, then immediately gets another call, this one from Anstis. “Captain?” he answers.
“I thought you should know that Marcus is on his way to engage Anektahken at Candlestick park,” Anstis drawls.
“Indeed. Are you accompanying him?”
“Is my presence requested?”
“It wasn’t requested, but it wouldn’t be remiss.”
“I have no quarrel with the Settites.” Rabenholz stares across the water a moment. “…On the other hand, if they’re about to be evicted, perhaps that is not important. I will meet you there.”
“As you wish.”
Rabenholz hangs up, then moves away from the waterfront back toward the streets, calling Rhona to secure a car.
THE SUNSET DISTRICT
(Jim: “Oh, I also want to call that Anarch in the East Bay, the one we set up the meeting with Rabenholz that didn’t happen.”
Jason: “Oh right, fuck, what was that guy’s name? Did I give him a name?”
Jason: “No it will not be Meezlesnorks.”
Jason: “No, it will not be Snorkselknees. Nor was it Bev. …You know, I should make it Bev…fuck it, it’s Bev.”)
Anstis dials up the Anarch-Formerly-Known-As-Bev.
“You know, I seem to be missing a Ventrue,” Bev answers.
“Something’s come up,” Anstis replies. “Helgi Isarnbjorn is at Candlestick park, being held by the Settites.”
There’s a silence. “…You got this for sure?”
“Aye, from Nitocris herself.”
“How do I know you’re not telling me shit?”
“You don’t, but Sertorius is on his way to deal with the problem. Your call whether you wish to be there as well. I thought you should know.”
Anstis hangs up without waiting for a reply, then drops into parrot-form and launches into the air.
Georgia steps out of the circle in the avatarium chamber and rushes to the center apparatus. Nothing in the room has changed, but something feels different, like a static charge to the air tingling her skin.
She ignores it and places her hand on the marble table. A moment passes, then the translucent image of Himmler appears again, staring at her from behind his glasses.
The expression on his face, though, is very different. “What have you done?” he mutters in shock.
“You gave me instructions,” Georgia says firmly. “I followed them.”
He looks her up and down. “Ruthless.”
“Yes, you were concerned about that. I increased it.”
(Jason: “Let me be clear about this: Heinrich Himmler looks at you…then gets the most disturbing grin you’ve ever seen.”)
The image smiles and spreads his hands. “At last…” he sighs, “…Arete.”
The moment passes and his face falls serious again. “Why did you come here?”
Georgia gestures at the room. “For this.”
“And for this you have killed a friend.”
“Absorbed,” she insists. “For the cause.”
“No. Slain.” The image tilts his head. “If I say no, what then?”
“Then it was all for naught.”
The Himmler-figure laughs. “A tragedy worthy of any. And if I say yes?”
Georgia smiles. “Ah, then it means something. Then it is noble, and useful, and glorious.”
“Glorious.” The image grins. “You understand glory, then?”
The figure leans forward. “Prove it.”
Instantly there’s a flash, then nothingness.
About half an hour later, Anstis arrives on the other side of the city and circles high above the old coliseum demolition site. A car drives up a few minutes later, and through the tint in the windows, Anstis can just make out Rabenholz’s face peering up at him. He doesn’t get out of the car, though, so Anstis continues to survey the area. Most of the park has been torn away, but chunks of ruins still dot the area between piles of concrete and twisted rebar. Pipes jut up through the rubble, some of them clearly extending down into the earth.
Anstis flutters to a landing and hops over to the largest pipe, a few inches in diameter, and listens intently. Wierd noises echo from its depths, bangs and a strange glonging echo. Anstis climbs to a better perch to listen more closely.
Until something shoots out pipe and grabs him by the head.
Meanwhile, Rabenholz watches from his car a few yards away. From his viewpoint, a cobra suddenly explodes from the pipe and starts wrestling around with the parrot.
(Chris: “This is why I didn’t get out of the car.”)
Rabenholz sighs, grabs his cane, and climbs stately out of the car.
The tussle continues across the rubble, tossing up dirt as the parrot and the snake struggle. The snake pulls high, hissing and flaring its hood. Anstis hisses back, open-beaked, and lunges forward, snapping the head off in one agg-dealing strike. The body spasms once, then disintegrates into ash around him.
Footsteps crunch as Rabenholz approaches him. “I hope that was as good for you as it was for the cobra.”
Anstis ignores him, rousing his feathers to clear the dust and ash, then hops back to the pipe to listen again. The echoing noises continue, and the earth under his feet rumbles unsettlingly.
“Captain, what are you doing?” Rabenholz asks. “Use your words.”
Anstis rouses again and shifts back up into a person. He taps the pipe. “I suppose the Settites turn into snakes in order to slither down there.”
“A reasonable supposition. But how shall we follow?”
“I don’t possess the ability to make myself very small.”
“Captain you are very resilient. I can trim you to form if necessary.”
Anstis eyes him, perplexed. Rabenholz takes a breath and elaborates, “Fishing line is cheap. We will attach fishing line to your talons, well remove your wings and flush you down the pipe.”
Anstis stares. “Tis a very long pipe.”
“An air compressor will push you along just fine.”
“An air compressor. You’re familiar with a cannon? A cannon operates by exploding black powder behind a projectile. The volume grows as the air is heated by the black powder. We can compress the air by other means. Not an explosion, but it will push you down the pipe. We can cover you in vegetable oil and you will be quite well lubricated for the operation.”
(Cameron: “Why not turn into octopus form and squeeze through?”
Jim: “Because my octopus form is fucking huge!”
Chris: “And we can’t see down the pipe if the octopus is in the way!”
Cameron: “But octopuses fit through tiny tiny spaces because they don’t have any bones.”
Me: “That’s true, the limiting feature on how small a space they can fit through is the size of their beak.”
Jim: “How large is Anstis’s octopus beak?”
Jason: “Bigger than the pipe.”)
Anstis peers into the pipe. “Alternatively, we could simply fill the pipe with…gasoline, I think you call it?”
Rabenholz frowns. “We could. Though dynamite would have a similar effect. It might require some permits, though.”
Anstis grins and folds his arms. “Well, I leave that in your capable hands.”
They stare at each other a long moment.
“Alternatively we could simply explore and see if there’s a foot path,” Rabenholz finally concedes.
(Jason: “Aw. I was really hoping for the parrot and the vegetable oil.”)
The two of them continue searching through the rubble. Finally, they come across what looks like the remains of an access tunnel, wide enough for a golf cart and angling into the earth at a shallow angle but sealed over with smooth, fresh cement.
Rabenholz taps the concrete with his cane. It rings hollowly. “Well this would appear to be the easiest way in.”
“Clear it out, I assume?” Anstis asks.
“Perhaps, but I’m afraid your claws may not be enough.”
Anstis hesitates, then grins.
Jason: “Suddenly, you can’t see the concrete anymore.”
Chris: “…Because there’s an octopus in the way?”)
Instantly, an octopus erupts into being in front of Rabenholz, flowing out in rippling folds of solid, wet muscle, and latches onto the concrete wall with razor-tipped suckers and hauls. Chunks fly off, revealing that the wall is only a few inches thick. But as they watch, fresh concrete starts to ooze from the walls, slowly filling the hole with fast-drying secretion. Octopus-Anstis pours in through the gap before it reseals.
A deep gloom permeates the other side, deepening as the hole slowly closes. Anstis hauls himself forward and gropes around. Bodies–and pieces of bodies–litter the tunnel, all exsanguinated. Anstis holds one up to his massive eye, identifying the mark of Settite tattoos in its desiccated skin, then shoves it into his maw, shredding and sucking out the last drops of blood while he stares at the others thoughtfully.
Hot light suddenly bursts across the tunnel as Rabenholz shoves Glitch through the thin secreted wall and cuts himself an opening large enough to step through. He rejoins Anstis and the two move forward, Anstis still in octopus-form and Rabenholz holding the sword up high for light.
They move through the rotting underbelly of the dead stadium, passing down concrete corridors lined with storage closets, until they reach a fall of rubble blocking their path. To the side, though, a hole has been torn through the basement wall, leading into a raw-edged tunnel going down. They glance at each other, then enter it silently, Anstis hauling himself along in the lead.
The dank smell of marsh-mud increases as they descend. They pass more bodies, as well as piles of ash. The earth rumbles again, stronger than what they felt when they were standing on the surface. And in the distance echo the sounds of fighting, and screaming.
The tunnel opens up into a sewer cistern, plunging two stories deep. Dark, oily ocean water sits at the bottom, half-obscuring what looks like a suit of armor sized for a body twelve feet tall. It sprawls empty across the muck ripped open like a tin can.
A massive, broken obsidian blade lies on the walkway rimming the cistern. Rabenholz kneels down to lay his hand on it, focusing his mind to read the history of the weapon. It was made in Egypt just a half decade ago for use by a servitor, conjured by a sorcerer specifically for battle. The servitor was bound to the armor it fought in, the same armor lying in the well below. The blade–and the servitor that bore it–tore many enemies to pieces over its history. Except the very last one, who struck like the wind.
Rabenholz looks up. Anstis is climbing his way around the walkway toward a tunnel on the far side. Rabenholz steps over the blade to follow.
Anstis enters the tunnel first, oozing his way over more bodies and squeezing between two massive bronze doors, flung open and half-torn off their hinges. A low cavern lies beyond, scraped from the earth like a den. Torches flicker on the walls but darkness fills the space, twisting and writhing….
Then the darkness lifts a head. A massive head, the size of a small car, flanked by a wide, fleshy hood and long emerald eyes.
The snake, though, doesn’t even seem to notice the octopus crowding through the tunnel. Its eyes are focused on a small figure in front of it, encased in armor so dark it swallows the light.
(Chris: “Hmm. Have either of them seen me?”
Jason: “Not yet, because guess what?”
Chris: “…The octopus is in the way.”)
Anstis pours into the room. The snake’s head snaps up at the movement. The figure in front of it also turns around, the face peering out from under the helm clearly Marcus’s. As if there was any doubt.
(Jim: “Wait, has Marcus seen octopus-form before?”
Me: “Well, maybe in the attack at the docks–Oh wait no that was before he showed up.”
Chris: “Maybe the Monomancy?”
Jason: “No, I think he had left the arena by then.”
Jim: “So, to him, a giant fucking octopus has just appeared out of nowhere.”)
Marcus smirks as he eyes the wet, writhing tentacles. He moves obliquely across the cavern, keeping both the snake and the octopus in sight. “Call Set himself if you wish, it will make no difference. Erebus claims his own.” His sword, encased in shadow as deep as his armor, flicks once in his hands, then he moves, near instantaneously.
In Anstis’s direction.
(Jim: “He’s going after me?!”
Jason: “Of course he is, he thinks you’re a Settite abomination. But we’ll get back to that.”)
THE SUNSET DISTRICT
Baron Esteban’s men eye Scout as she strides up to his bar but don’t say anything. One opens the door for her. She nods and slips into the darkness inside.
The thugs lurking around the corners of the bar have changed, but everything else seems roughly the same. Esteban is sitting in the same chair at the same table overlooking the bar. Even his cigar seems to be the same brand.
He nods to her as she approaches. “Good evening. You have returned, I hope it is with good news.”
Scout bows lightly. “I have come to follow through on our deal as discussed. I have tracked down information on the Assamite known as Cantor.”
Esteban lifts an eyebrow, then gestures with his cigar. “Well, I am all ears.”
She takes a breath and launches into the same information she gave Rabenholz: how he is sometimes known as Cantor the White for the fact that his skin isn’t dark, that he destroyed a Sabbat cell at the University of San Francisco upon arriving in the city, and to date no one knows exactly why he’s here.
Esteban strokes his beard. “This is fascinating information. How did you acquire it, I wonder?”
Scout smiles thinly. “There are others with Sabbat connections in the city.”
“There are. You are in with the Priscus?”
“I am familiar with him.”
“And he has told you all of this?” Esteban gestures again. “Of the Black Hand?
Scout hesitates a moment. “He told me nothing that I wouldn’t have been able to collect on my own. I simply decided to save the time.”
“Not so sure of that, the Hand does not like to be seen. They wish to operate in the shadows, as we all do.” Esteban stabs out the cigar. “Do you know why Cantor is here?”
“I do not.”
“Most distressing. He comes and destroys one of the only Sabbat cells in the city just before everything goes to hell.”
“One could say it made things more convenient for the rest of us.”
“One could say, but the Hand is not in the habit of making anything convenient for anyone. Except themselves. And who knows why.” He picks up a tumbler of blood and leans back in his chair. “You have brought me all of this to honor our deal. What was my end of that deal, again?”
Scout bows respectfully. “Forgiving me my trespass earlier, and generously granting me access to your territory.”
“Of course.” Esteban smiles. “Well. My territory is not infinite, but within its bounds, you may conduct your business as you wish. Although, what business could a Caitiff have so quickly in this city, I wonder?”
Scout shrugs. “Nothing of much import. I tend not to stay in one place for too long.”
“I think not. Any Caitiff–and I know some–would have fled by now.” Esteban slowly scans his bar. “There are powerful vampires about. Cantor is merely one of them.”
Scout follows his gaze. “Fortunes were never made by the overly cautious.”
Esteban smiles. “Well, if fortune is what you seek, then if you find me more things I would want, I will pay.”
She nods. “What sorts of things do you want?”
His grin widens and he pulls out another cigar. “I never know until I see it.”
Scout bows again, thanks him for his time, and leaves.
Foggy air, thick with the smell of the ocean, drives across her face as she walks alone through the sleepy neighborhoods surrounding the bar. She’s quiet a few minutes, thinking, then finally pulls out her phone to call Rabenholz.
“Ms. Scout,” he answers.
“Lord Rabenholz. How is your evening going?”
“Fascinating, I’m watching a giant octopus fight a giant snake while a shadow-boy tries to kill them both.”
Scout stops. “…Where are you?”
“Candlestick Park.” A hiss, rising to a roar, echoes in the background. “Ms. Scout, I’m afraid I shall have to call you back.” He hangs up.
Scout stares at her phone a long moment, till she feels something tugging at her sleeve. Something short. She looks down.
A small boy is standing next to her, maybe five years old, wearing an outfit like a pirate costume, but missing the hat. He stares up at her with wide, dead eyes.
Scout stares back. “Can I help you?” The boy doesn’t respond. She carefully removes her sleeve from his grip and crouches down. “Kid? Are you alright?”
The boy’s lip move softly, whispering. Scout leans in to hear.
“One…two…three…four…..five……six……” the boy takes a shuddering breath, “…….seven.” With that, he suddenly turns and runs.
Scout tenses, then stands in one movement, drawing her knife and scanning the street behind her while dropping instinctively into invisibility.
The suburb street is empty, stretching off into the fog behind her, cool and silent, the only sign of movement the blinking hazard lights of a UPS truck parked a few houses down. Scout eyes it a moment, then frowns and looks at her phone to check the time. It’s almost midnight. Still obfuscated, she approaches the truck carefully.
Before she reaches it, the driver suddenly exits the house next to the truck, hauling an empty hand-cart, and lifts it up into the back of the truck. There’s a rumble as he closes the door, then he climbs into the cab, starts the engine, and drives off.
Scout stops on the sidewalk, staring after the truck, then examines the house. There’s no package out front. The doors and windows are all shut, and all the lights are out.
She stares a long moment, then glances around. The kid has completely disappeared. After a few moments, she continues walking through the night, this time remaining obfuscated.
Not long after Charles leaves, Paul calls and leaves a message for Everton, asking to speak sometime soon. He spends the next hour or so trying to talk Leeland through possible diplomatic solutions to his werewolf problems, till suddenly there’s a knock at the door. Leeland gets up nervously to answer it.
It’s Everton himself.
“Doctor!” Paul says as he enters. “I hoped you would return my call, I didn’t think you would show up in person.”
“As it would happen, business brought me to the area.” Everton walks into the living room, limping slightly, and sits down heavily in a chair. “Ahh. Now. How can I help you?”
Leeland wanders over to lurk near Paul’s chair, arms folded. Paul clears his throat. “So, Doctor, you’ve always had an eye toward the werewolf world.”
Everton rubs at his face. “It’s something I’ve always endeavored to keep track of.”
“I should level with you. This is about werewolf cub you took away for safekeeping, from San Simeon.”
Everton looks up. “You’ve recovered it?”
“I have. Or, Ms. Johnson did, several nights ago.”
Everton sits up.“It’s–” he looks around, then sags, “–it’s not here, is it.” He sinks back into the chair. “Where is it?”
“She was captured yesterday morning by a Nephandus and a Black Spiral Dancer.”
Everton’s face suddenly goes paler. “You’re certain of this?”
“I saw the Dancer myself, but I only have the word of someone else on the Nephandus.”
Everton leans forward. “Mr. Stewart, please be very precise, you’re telling me that the werewolf cub was taken by a Spiral Dancer?”
“Do you know where?”
“The hills in Marin.”
Everton stares. “The hive,” he says flatly.
The chair groans as Everton sinks slowly back again. “Oh dear. Well I needn’t tell you this is bad news. I’ve been doing some research on my own, you see. I don’t think it’s a surprise for you to learn that the Spiral Dancer has been working with Perpenna, as has the Nephandus. If they’ve taken that cub to the hive, then precisely the outcome I was attempting to avoid by potentially having to kill it may be about to transpire.”
Leeland stares between Everton and Paul. “What outcome? What could possibly be worse than the hundreds of werewolves already crawling all over my campus?”
Everton sighs. “Mr. Stewart, you’ve heard me speak of the legend of the perfect Metis?”
Paul nods. “Not in detail.”
“It’s something of a messiah figure among the werewolves. The legend is that in the end times, there will be a Metis born without deformities. It is expected to be imbued with fantastic power of some form or another, depending on which legend you trust.” He hesitates. “The problem is the werewolves you and I both know and love aren’t the only ones telling tales. The Spiral Dancers have their own version of the tale, and theirs is quite different. To them, the Perfect Metis is their key to finally winning their eternal war with their kindred. They will use it for some black, nefarious purpose, no doubt to awaken some form of lower demon.”
Paul blinks. “The werewolves have demons?”
“In a sense.” Everton holds up three fingers. “The werewolves worship a trinity of sorts. The Wild, the Weaver, and the Wyrm. Creation, stasis, entropy. Birth, life, death. A common enough theme. According to their legend, the Wyrm went mad, and from its madness it spawned all forms of corruption, destruction, and despair. The Wyrm itself trifurcated into a new trinity of sorts. A three-headed serpent of tremendous power, each head embodying some form of the corrupt Wyrm.”
Paul eyes him. “Is this a metaphor or literal?”
“Both, I’m afraid. I’ve always considered it a metaphor, but the Spiral Dancers consider it quite true. They worship the Wyrm in its corrupted form. The other werewolves wish to restore it to its purified form, Wrym the Destroyer, rather than Wyrm the Corrupter.”
Everton folds his hands seriously in his lap. “If the Spiral Dancers believe it is actually the Perfect Metis they will no doubt enact some form of end-times ritual with it. The outcome of this ritual stands to be one of two things. Either they will perform an inordinately powerful ritual, one which will undoubtedly cause immense devastation to the immediate area, but they will be unable to use the Perfect Metis as a focal point to expand it further because the cub is simply a cub.” He pauses. “Or the cub is not simply a cub, it is the perfect metis, and their ritual will quite simply end the world.”
Silence falls. “Comforting,” Paul says.
“Quite. This is the occassion where I would suggest that the appropriate response be something on the order of six thousand werewolves.”
Paul nods. “I’m fine with that.”
“Do you happen to have six thousand werewolves?”
Paul glances up. “No, but it sounds like Mr. Leeland might.”
Everton follows his gaze up to Leeland, who scowls back. “Mr. Leeland has difficulty with Red Talons, I understand, which, while effective, are difficult to work with. The Red Talons will not do anything because you or I or Mr. Leeland asked them to.”
“Because they’re animals,” Leeland grumbles. “Animals can’t be reasoned with.”
“When it comes to the Red Talons I’m afraid you’re right,” Everton replies. “The vast majority do not even speak English.”
“From what I understand,” Paul says slowly, “the hive is somehow related to some sort of labyrinth that drives everyone mad and evil.”
Everton nods. “You refer to the Black Spiral Labyrinth, and in a sense yes it is. But the Spiral Labyrinth has everything you abhor, I assure you of that.” Everton’s gaze darkens. “I have never visited the Spiral Labyrinth. I would not have returned had I done so. But it is a very real place. To march down it is to surrender your soul. That said, the hive itself is a very real place itself. It may or may not have a connection to the Labyrinth or to other hives, but they all have a similar underground structure of tunnels and so forth. Entering such a hive may be a death sentence but it is not quite the same as entering the Labyrinth.”
“So force of numbers could work,” Paul says.
“Well, I know…five werewolves on a mission to rescue the cub.”
Everton stares. “Five.”
“Including the one you met.”
“I’m sure she would be happy to see me.” He rubs at his eyes. “Here’s the difficulty. No one knows if the Perfect Metis exists, or ever will. I’ve studied the matter to some extent–the prophecies, the legends of Ceoris, and so on–and I have no proof one way or the other.” He leans forward. “But. If you were to ask my scholarly opinion, there is a Perfect Metis, and that cub is it.”
Paul nods. “That’s good enough for me. So where do we get an army of six thousand werewolves?”
“We do not. I’m not entirely sure there exists such an army.”
“Good,” Leeland mutters.
Everton ignores him. “The werewolves have been slowly going extinct for many centuries. What numbers they could muster, even if we could call them out, I can’t tell you. And by the time they organized it would be far too late.”
“What about private security?” Paul asks.
Everton snorts. “Rent a cops? Send those into a hive and they’ll be coming out as someone’s bowel movements. No, you’ll need something else. I don’t know what. There’ll be worse things than even werewolves in those tunnels. But if you had sufficient force you could storm the gates, I suppose, perhaps make it through before they realized what you were doing. But you would need to prepare for other things besides just werewolves. The Labyrinth contains untold numbers of horrors. Banes, fomori, spiral dancers themselves, corrupted vampires. God knows what else.”
Everton nods slowly, face turning thoughtful. “It’s possible. The thing I can’t quite work out is why the Spiral Dancers would be working for him, nor why he would wish to assist them. After all, if the Spiral Dancers succeed they’ll conjure forth some kind of greater death-god upon the world, and that death god is not going to brook any rivals.” He shakes his head. “Unless Perpenna literally means to end the world by any means. I hadn’t thought him that mad.”
“Awhile ago you seemed somewhat out of sorts, you had visited some sort of hell and seen an army prepared by Perpenna….
Everton’s gaze turns distant. “I had,” he mutters. “I had…. I was in Malfeas. Malfeas is where the Spiral Labyrinth leads. It is a hell that merits the description. And in a section of Malfeas, in a tartarean pit, I found nightmares beyond number, all babbling his name. But Malfeas is not a place one escapes easily. Perpenna cannot void Malfeas onto the earth, not without a great deal of help. And the creature the Spiral Dancers propose to summon won’t be in a place to help anyone summon anything. It will be entropy incarnate, an unthinking monster of terrifying proportions. The equivalent of a Lovecraftian being conjured forth onto the Earth. It would end reality.”
“Which is what the Nephandi are after.”
Everton nods. “The Nephandi I can understand. They wish to end everything, they don’t care how. But Perpenna’s not Nephandi. He must have some intention, but why go through all this?”
“I’m sort of connecting the dots, but I’m lead to believe that the Nephandus here is the one I met on the Farallones–”
Everton glowers. “Heydrich. The Man with the Iron Heart. What of him?”
“Why would he be working with Tremere who appear to be doing nothing more than making a bunch of gargoyles?”
Everton considers this. “The Tremere had the cub in the first place,” he recalls.
“And they had an alliance with the Spiral Dancer,” Paul adds.
“Quite so.” Everton drums his fingers on the arm of his chair. “It’s my suspicion that Heydrich might be the go-between between Perpenna and the Spiral Dancers. After all, Perpenna is a vampire. Though they sometimes work together, the Spiral Dancers don’t care for vampires because they don’t like the competition. If I was Perpenna, I wouldn’t put myself in their clutches because a Spiral Dancer hive definitely contains horrors powerful enough to bring even him down.”
“So is Perpenna trying to play them?” Paul asks.
“How?” Everton stands and paces, limp suddenly gone. “They have what they want now, the means with which to summon an eater of souls of biblical proportion. There is something we don’t know….” He’s silent a few moments, then stops, favoring Paul with a sad smile. “However at this juncture I would venture that it scarcely matters. Whether Perpenna has some plan or the Spiral Dancers succeed, well…let’s just say you won’t be making your technology announcement.”
Paul stills. “That’s unacceptable,” he says coldly.
“It would be rather difficult to transport sunlight through your fiber optic cables if the Spiral Dancers contrive to summon something that eats the sun.”
Paul blinks. “Yeah, that…definitely would be a different marketplace….”
Everton smiles again, this time with teeth. “Then I suspect, Mr. Stewart, you get your rolodex and see who you can call.”
The light fades to nothing, nothingness. A black, immense void, stretching out to eons, surrounds Georgia’s consciousness. As she waits, though, stars start to come out in the distance, surrounding her in a sphere, like the room she was taken to when she first spoke with the spirit of the machine. But that carved space pales in comparison to the jeweled majesty now surrounding her. Without any body to speak of, she lets herself drift, watching the heavens’ iridescent light peacefully.
Then, inside her, something ignites to join it.
A supernova explodes in her chest, tearing out in a rippling shockwave of power, tearing her apart and yet leaving her completely untouched at the same time. Her consciousness twists, battered by the force of it. Then a voice–the voice of the spirit of the machine, the spirit Jawahar assumed to be Daedelus–suddenly speaks from all around her:
“Can you feel it? Can you feel the power, the possibility? The arete? The excellence, the glory? What will you do, I wonder? Burn out, or kindle a flame to burn forever?”
She stabilizes herself on the currents of power, trying to sense something else in the void. But there’s nothing, just her and the voice.
“But this power is unfocused, undirected. It must have definition. It must have form.”
Suddenly nine objects appear around her, nine spheres of glowing light orbiting her like a star, each marked with an alchemical symbol. Most of them are strange, but some seem half-familiar, like the face of an old friend. The spheres circle her slowly, evenly spaced except for one gap where a tenth sphere clearly should be, but is missing. She focuses on each one at a time, and as her consciousness brushes them, she gets fleeting sensations associated with each one: solidity. fluidity. entropy. stability….
An expectant tension settles around her in the space. She realizes she’s being expected to choose one.
Her attention draws toward one in particular, the one with a symbol more familiar than the rest. She realizes she has seen it before: stamped on some of Dr. vonNatsi’s devices, plated onto the machinery of Professor Snodgrass’s ethership, and worked into the motif of the steampunk patterns in Victoria Lovelace’s china teaset.
She reaches her consciousness toward it: solid-regimented-structure-material.
(Jason: “…Or you can look for another one.”
Kara: “I’m trying to think of what Georgia would do, not what Kara would do, cause Kara would feel each and every one of them and take careful notes….”
Jason: “Well, to sum up, the nine spheres of Magery you’re facing are: Matter, Forces, Time, Life, Spirit, Mind, Correspondence, Prime, and Entropy.”
Kara: “And the missing one?”
Jason: “…Long story.”
Kara: “So the Etherite one is…?”
Jason: “Matter. They use other ones too, but that is their primary one.”
Kara: “Hmm. Which one feels the most…firey?”
Jason: “You find that one, the longer you look at it, the more you realize you’ve seen the symbol on it before too, on Jawahar’s cloak. It’s the symbol of the Hermetic order, of Forces.”
Kara: “Alright, well my thinking is that Georgia has always been concerned with the elements….”
Jason: “You mean the classical elements? Air, water, earth, fire? Those are Matter matters.”
Kara: “Not Forces?”
Jason: “No, Forces basically means energy. But I stress again, no mage concentrates on just their own sphere. It’s borderline impossible to do so. This is just what you’re starting with.”
Kara: “Okay, so…Matter or Forces…. She feels a little like she owes Jawahar, so there’s a pull toward that, but she also reveres Dr. vonNatsi…. I mean, if I chose Matter, would I be an Etheric mage?”
Jason: “No, you’re going to be something…different.”
Kara: “Well…let’s go with Matter.”)
Georgia opens her mind and takes it. A comforting sense of order flows over her like honey, settling into the crevices of her mind–
–And suddenly the universe opens up.
She feels the vibrations of the molecules of her body, the thermal energy coursing through them. She sees particles flitting through space, warping spacetime as they pass. All around her, the void unfolds as a latticework of Planck-length spaces and subatomic distances, expanding to the horizon of the visible universe.
And yet…it all makes perfect sense.
For the first time, she understands why the mages all scoffed at her Thaumaturgy, at her sorcery and blood magic. She realizes it was nothing more than her own trapped, narrow way of thinking, and now she has transcended it, and so much more is possible. She recognizes that this, in fact, was her destiny all along….
(Jason: “You are not a vampire, not really. You are not a mage, not really. You are, in a way, both, and there is a word for that. Congratulations, Kara, you are now a lich.”)
END OF NIGHT