Kara: “I cast prestidigitation.”
Jason: “What’s that?”
Kara: “It’s a DnD spell.”
Jim: “It does a very wide array of very minor things.”
Jason: “…Okay, well, you cast prestidigitation, and a pirate appears.”
Anstis soars into the air over Chinatown, angling toward the pagoda lights atop the Temple of Eternal Brotherhood–
(Me: “OMG, is there an International Night fundraiser at the St. Mary’s preschool across the street that a bunch of bellydancers are dancing at!?”
Me: “Yay!! The kids are super cute!!!”
Jason: “…Anstis eats you.”
Me: “Nooo!! I parked in the lot so I should be safe! Also, protip, St. Mary’s garage is $1 an hour after 6pm. In the middle of Chinatown! That’s a helluva deal!”)
Since Anstis doesn’t need to find parking, he lands directly at the front door and transforms. The guards don’t even blink, nodding at him and taking him up to the penthouse level.
As before, Xiang Li Weng is standing behind his desk as Anstis arrives, facing out the windows looking over the city. Unlike before, though, tension sets his shoulders.
Anstis swaggers to the desk and bows. “You called?”
“Captain,” Weng says without turning. “You have been…busy.”
Weng turns. His face is a mask of composure, but his hands still flex restlessly at his sides. “What, I wonder, have you been busy doing?”
“Are you familiar with Jonathan Flowers?”
Weng smiles thinly. “Only by reputation. He is a powerful Ravnos. A lord of ships and men.”
Anstis glowers. “And completely insufferable.”
“You will find, Captain, many things can be suffered if the inducements be correct.” Still standing, Weng lowers his hands to his desktop. “The spirits are disturbed, Captain.“
“All of them, for many reasons. They speak of a man freshly slain, a figure of dread and malice. His name, Charles.” Weng smiles. “Or by another language…Carlos.”
Anstis smirks. “I am aware of this Carlos.”
“I think you are more than just aware of him, Captain.” He eyes Anstis coolly a long moment. “Do you know what it is you are doing?”
Anstis shrugs grandly. “As much as any of us ever do.”
“Is that so? Carlos is a dread thing. The spirits speak of him and recoil.” Weng’s fingers draw slowly along the wood. “You play a very dangerous game, Captain. More so I think than you know.”
Anstis merely smirks.
Weng frowns. “What progress have you made in locating Xia?”
Anstis reaches inside his coat and produces a small vial from a pocket. “I have the sample I need to bring myself to her location,” he says, waggling it.
“And have you?”
“How soon is soon?”
“I hadn’t planned a specific moment. Is there a pressing need?”
Weng’s glare deepens. “Xia has made a move. She has conjured from some malign depths a great and terrible ally. A Tremere. Oliver Thrace.”
“I have heard this name, but not much else.”
“Oliver Thrace is a terrible force. If and when he and Xia chose they can march into this building and lay us all waste. This must be rectified, now.” Weng tents his fingers on the desk. “Captain, I have given you great leeway in your actions. I have let you have your head, not guarding the spirit realm from you. But I cannot wait.” He glances over his shoulder to the window. “Forces are moving in this city, including ones I wasn’t even aware were here. If you do not resolve Xia and Oliver Thrace within seventy-two hours, then I shall have no choice but to curry favor from one greater than you.”
(Me: *stage whisper* “I think he means Flowers.”)
Anstis scowls and tucks the vial away. “I shall seek her out tomorrow evening.”
“Do this. I know what you have been up to.” He eyes the pirate a long, intent moment. “I know whom you have imprisoned. Think on that.”
(Me: *stage whisper* “I think he means the wraith in Hell.”
“Think on that, Captain,” Weng repeats firmly, “And on the terrors that would overcome you if it were known.”
Anstis bows grandly. “I will report back tomorrow evening.”
“Do so.” Weng turns back to his window. Anstis leaves without another word.
AN ALLEGORICAL REPRESENTATION OF BEOWULF
(Jason: “So, you are in an allegorical representation of Beowulf, you have a ring that talks, and you’re with a douchebag.”
Kara: “So…an ordinary evening so far.”
Jason: “Not true, you don’t have a cat.”
Georgia trudges toward the town through the dripping, ancient forest, Dr. von Natsi wrapped in furs and draped over her shoulder. She makes good time through the darkness and the muck, trying not to think about how it’s because von Natsi’s body is unexpectedly light.
After almost a mile of walking, though, she realizes they’re not alone. The bland man–the one Lovelace suspected to be a paradox spirit–is walking beside them. “Where are you going?” he asks as she notices him.
She stares at the trail. “On a walk.”
He nods. Despite the rain and muddy forest, his grey suit and shoes are surprisingly clean. “You can walk all you like, there’s no way out of here.”
“I didn’t say anything about getting out.”
“But you were thinking it.”
“Maybe. Is that not allowed?”
“Oh, anything is allowed. Especially for you.” He laughs humorlessly. “What rules could possibly apply to Georgia Johnson?”
She glares and shifts von Natsi on her shoulder. “Many rules.”
“Which you violate when you wish.”
She opens her mouth to deny him, then falls into a glare. “What do you want?”
“I don’t want anything. It’s dangerous to want things around you.”
“Not necessarily. Sometimes people get what they want around me.”
“Really? What times are those?”
Georgia slows, thinking. “Well, the dragon got to hang out in my Chantry for awhile, and Paul gets many things he likes, and Jawahar…got to contribute to the cause he was dedicated to.”
The paradox spirit suddenly stops, smiling to himself. “Is that what he would say?”
Georgia stops too. “Well, I’m not really sure. But I think so.”
Rain drips from tree boughs in the lingering silence. Finally, Georgia turns to continue walking. The paradox spirit paces her again. “Why are you trying to get the doctor out?” he asks. “This is his place.”
Georgia checks that von Natsi is still fully covered by the furs. “He needs medical attention, and you don’t have medical attention here.”
The spirit gestures to the murky trees. “We have everything he wants. And everything he needs.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes, we do.”
“No you don’t.”
“Yes, we do.”
(Kara: “I think they keep up this up back and forth for, like, a quarter mile.”)
After a few minutes of this, the paradox spirit raises a hand to cut off her reply. “And what makes you a judge of what he needs? Or does he too need to be contributed to the cause?”
“It depends on which cause.”
The spirit chuckles darkly. “You have many plans. Plans so important you need a friend.”
Georgia eyes him suspiciously. “Yes.”
“Then I’ll make you a deal.” The spirit stops again. “This place isn’t for you anyway. Kill him and I’ll let you go.”
Georgia stares at him, then turns away to continue walking. “No thank you.”
Suddenly the spirit is in front of her, smiling calmly. “You don’t even have to believe me. This whole place, it’s for him. Destroy him and it’ll collapse and you’ll be back where you started.”
She steps around him. “That’s a very generous offer. But I decline.”
“Because I need him.”
“No you don’t, you have everything you need now. An avatar. True magic power. Don’t you want to go back and purge the Tremere?”
“That is on the to-do list, but Dr. von Natsi has valuable information and insight and training I lack.” She walks a moment, eyes focused on the trail ahead. “Plus, I like him.”
The spirit laughs. “You don’t know what it is to like people.”
“I like people! I like Paul, and Bob, and the space whale–”
“Bob is your plaything, the space whale your pet.” The spirit smirks. “And Paul…is just walking rations.”
Georgia eyes him. “I’m not sure I think of him that way, but it’s interesting you do.”
He continues smirking. “I don’t exist.” With that, he disappears.
Georgia continues the rest of the way in silence, eventually reaching the village. As before, the muddy streets between the hovels are empty, but she can feel eyes track her as she makes her way to the hall. The carved wooden door is wedged half-open and firelight leaks through the gap. Still carefully balancing von Natsi, she pulls it all the way open and goes inside.
The interior is larger than the huts and hovels but isn’t much more adorned. A firepit lies in the center, filling the room with light and wood-smoke, surrounded by scooped-out areas for people to sit or lie, but the only furniture in the room is a rough-carved wooden chair draped with furs at the far end. Georgia closes the door, then carefully lays von Natsi down near the fire. He murmurs as she pulls the furs off, carefully spreading them out to dry, but doesn’t open his eyes. Once he’s relaxed again, she lays the rusted sword near him and goes to sit on the wooden throne.
Hours pass. The fire eventually dies down to coals. Von Natsi mutters and rolls closer to their warmth. Outside the hall, the rain dies but the wind picks up, whistling through chinks in the walls and around the edges of the door. Georgia remains seated in the chair, hands folded gently in the lap of her robes.
Suddenly, under the groaning wind, footsteps squelch closer to the hall. Georgia composes herself and stands as the wind suddenly shrieks, blasting the door at the far end of the hall open. She peers through the gloom.
Standing in the doorway, framed by the night…is Tom Lytton.
(Me: *not really paying attention, suddenly blinks and looks up* “Wait…Tom is in the shard-realm?!”
Jason: *pedantically* “It’s not a shard-realm. It’s a paradox-realm.”
Kara: “Yeah, psh, everyone knows that! Get it right!”
Jason: “And no, it’s not really Tom, just a paradox-shadow representation of him.”
Kara: “That…I bet I have to fight.”
Me: “Oh… Oshit! Can I play him?!” *runs to find her Tom-notebook*)
Tom steps into the light cast by the dying coals, his tall, muscular form throwing shadows across the entire back of the hall. His clothes are his usual motif of black, black, leather, and black, though there’s no sign of damage from the Costco fight, or from being bolted to Rabenholz’s rack. His face, handsomely unforgettable as always, stares at Georgia emotionlessly.
(Me: *runs back, slams Tom’s character sheet onto the table* “Okay, what do I do?”)
Jason: “Tom. Kill them all.”
Me: “Do…I have weapons?”
Kara: “It’s supposed to be a wrestling match.”
Jason: “Yeah, so you’re unarmed.”
Me: “…Except for my guns!!” *flexes*)
Tom cracks his neck and moves forward, biceps straining the thin cotton of his tshirt, but as he approaches the fire he stops, eyeing the slumbering shape of Dr. von Natsi half-buried in furs.
Then dashes toward him.
(Kara: “Wait, you’re attacking Dr. von Natsi?!”
Me: “Well, yeah….”
Jason: “His instructions are to kill them all.”
Kara: *grumbles* “Fucking hell….”
Jason: “Oh I’m sorry, are the rules of a paradox realm not to your liking?”)
Georgia leaps forward, grabbing a handful of dirt from the packed floor and throwing it into the air over Dr. von Natsi. At her concentration, the dirt combines with the smoke particles of the air and instantly coalesces into an arched latticework of wrought steel, crashing down over von Natsi like a cage. Tom slams into it but the elegant shape holds, keeping him back from the stricken mage underneath. Tom roars in frustration and tears at it.
While he’s distracted, Georgia collects another handful of dirt and throws it toward Tom.
(Kara: “With this one I want to form thin chains to bind him.”
Me: “Like Chains of Water, but now it’s real!”
Jason: “Chains of Chains? Sure. But bear in mind your blood-magic and all still works.”
Kara: “I know. But it’ll be a lot easier to stab him if he can’t move.”
Jason: “True. Just saying, you still have Chains of Water.”
Kara: “But I don’t have any water.”
Jason: “…You don’t have any water? Kara, you have matter-magic, you can have water anywhere you want!!”
Kara: *realization dawning* “Oh–”
Me: “…Oh, my god, it’s just like in the first Harry Potter when they were trying to light a fire to get through the traps and Hermione was like, ‘Yes, but there isn’t any wood,’ and Ron was like, ‘ARE YOU A WITCH OR NOT?!’”
Kara: *sighs* “Let’s just stick with the chains-chains.”)
The dirt clumps in the air, then elongates into long metal chains, draping over Tom like tinsel, binding and tightening to form a net. Tom yells wordlessly, then swells his muscles against the constricting strands of metal….
(Me: “Strength focus: Powerful Arms!!!” *flexes again*)
With another roar the chains shatter, sublimating back into dirt. Tom snarls at Georgia, then screams as Georgia lifts a hand and summons a dose of his blood, tearing it through his skin and willing it through the air and into her.
(Me: “Now I’m mad, so I lunge at her.”
Jason: “Kara, a giant pissed-off Brujah lunges at you. With big, manly arms.
Jim: “And an unforgettable face.”
Me: “And beautiful blue eyes.”
Kara: “…I hug him.”)
Georgia opens her arms to accept his attack and they both crash down to the dirt floor. They roll, a mess of leather and robes, then Georgia thrusts herself forward to bite at his neck.
(Me: “Oh nooo!”
Jason: “Remember it’s not really Tom.”
Me: “I know.”
Kara: “Georgia also knows it’s not really Tom.”
Jason: “Would Georgia do it anyway if it was?”
Tom shouts in pain, tears her off with one hand, and pins her to the ground.
(Kara: “Wait, so I’m underneath him at the moment?”
Me: *sultry* “Yeaaah…”
Kara: “Tom’s gay!”
Me: *hesitates* “He’s…dabbled….”)
Tom braces himself over her, pinning her arms with his knees and grabbing for her throat.
(Kara: “Well. I will…turn his clothes…into–”
Chris: “I like that idea.”
Me: “It will only increase his power!!”
Kara: “How about I turn them into water?”
Jason: “Go for it.”
Kara: “…Four successes!”
Jason: “Ooo! Okay, so one to do it, and then what? Duration? Quantity? Wetness?”
Kara: “Oh, wetness.”
Me: “SUPER wet!”
Kara: “Georgia is DRENCHED!!”
Jason: “…I instantaneously regret that statement–”
Me: “We’re getting super close to crossing the streams here, Kara!”
Jason: “Duration!! Duration, then!”
Kara: “Okay, I want it to last a scene, and I want–”
Me: “She wants to be soaking wet for a real long time!!!”)
Water cascades off Tom as his clothes melt, drenching Georgia and the dirt floor beneath them, leaving him naked above her.
(Jim: “You should roll with it.”
Me: “I am! I mean, I’m half-mindless, so I’m still trying to choke her out.”
Kara: “The sudden nakedness doesn’t confuse you at all?”
Me: “No! This is, like, a regular Wednesday for me.”)
Tom’s fingers dig in under her jaw, searching for the jugular. Georgia gurgles something indistinct–
Then the water around them suddenly rises up, forming into a solid mass to thrust Tom off her and engulf him in a liquid cocoon.
Georgia stands, rubbing at her throat, and picks up the rusted sword from the furs near von Natsi. She carries it to Tom’s struggling form and stabs it down through his chest. He continues to flail inside his watery prison, but now he’s pinned to the floor like a bug. Georgia eyes the water surrounding him, thinks for a moment, then concentrates….
…Turning a thin layer of the water immediately surrounding Tom into elemental caesium.
(Jason: “And as you know, water is incompressible, so it transfers shock waves like nothing else.”
Me: “…And I’m encased in it! Fuck!”)
The Thaumaturgical spell binding the watery cocoon contains the resulting explosive chemical reaction, but the entire blob shudders and turns instantly into red slurry. With no more target left to bind, a moment later it melts, drenching the furs and the surrounding floor.
Georgia stands a moment, practically glowing with magical triumph, then checks again on Dr. von Natsi and returns to the wooden chair, the rusted sword laid proudly across her lap.
(Kara: “I’m sorry I killed Paradox-Tom.”
Me: “That’s okay, that was fun!”
Kara: “I’m sorry you didn’t get to use all your powers.”
Me: “That’s fine, all I really ever want to do is punch things and tear throats out. And have awkward sexual innuendos mid-fight.”)
Rabenholz enters the quiet halls of Dr. von Natsi’s lab and explores carefully, looking for the dial he is supposedly supposed to turn to the right. Mostly what he encounters, though, are inscrutable pieces of equipment, many which trigger various sound- and side-effects when prodded, as well as one microwave which functions suspiciously just like a microwave.
After a few minutes of searching, he notices light filtering from somewhere deep in the lab. He follows it to a corner apportioned like a small library and finds a door sliced out of solid metal, leading to a small room lined with baroque equipment. A woman in Victorian dress stands in the middle of the room, back to him, speaking softly into a brass-mouthed tube.
Rabenholz stops outside the door and clears his throat. The woman stops, hangs up the tube, dabs briefly at her face with one white-gloved hand, then turns around. “Ah, Lord Rabenholz, was it? Such a pleasure. How are you this evening?”
“Ms. Lovelace.” Rabenholz nods to her. “I’m quite well, thank you.”
“I trust you haven’t been incinerated by the sun’s rays?”
“No, not yet.”
“Excellent. A most agreeable state of affairs. Are you also here helping Ms. Johnson?”
“Indeed. I’ve been instructed to find some dial and turn it to the right.”
“Oh dear. Would it be this one?” Lovelace moves to the side, revealing a giant wheel mounted on the wall behind her with a handwritten sign warning the observer not to turn it to the right.
Rabenholz smiles thinly. “Ah yes. Of course it would be the one that has the warning sign.”
“Quite.” Lovelace eyes it a moment. “You propose to turn this to the right?”
“Well now that I’ve seen the warning sign I’m little less inclined to.” Rabenholz gestures to the room with the head of his cane. “Do you understand this apparatus?”
Lovelace eyes the white walls and brass equipment around her. “Oh, I’m quite certain no-one understands this apparatus. Including the one who built it.”
“Well I suppose there is some comfort in symmetry.”
Lovelace delicately taps a dial. “This room is some manner of power control station for the good Dr. vonNatsi’s laboratory. “
Rabenholz’s gaze lingers on another dial, which upon closer inspection is actually an egg-timer. “Somehow it doesn’t seem unfitting for him to power it this way.”
“I understand this is the second iteration of the powerstation. I confess I was not eager to understand what came of the first. I think it had something to do with Loma Prieta.”
Rabenholz frowns, then nods in recognition. “Ah, the earthquake some decades ago.”
“Indeed. He wouldn’t speak of it, except to say he would never use cabbage again.”
“…Cryptic.” Rabenholz and Lovelace stare at each other a moment. “May I ask what exactly you’re doing here right now?” Rabenholz finally asks. “I of course don’t mean to pry, I would just hate to get in your way. I am lead to believe if I turn this wheel to the right, I will find Ms. Johnson, who appears to be trapped somewhere.”
Lovelace sighs. “I’ve been endeavouring to render such aid as I might to Ms. Johnson as well. But I have no objections should you wish to turn this dial to the right.”
“And what is the most likely thing to happen if I do that?”
Lovelace frowns at the wheel, and the note hanging from it. “It’s difficult to say. I have a hypothesis of sorts, but that hypothesis has taken a bit of a beating the last few minutes, as I’ve determined that it’s incorrect when it comes to the actions of one Georgia Johnson.”
“She is unconventional.”
“That appears to be correct. My expectation now is that if you were to turn this dial to the right, very little would transpire. But it is entirely possible you would be transported out of time and space into a paradox realm designed to punish all those who enter it with everlasting pain.”
Rabenholz considers this a moment. “Is there a way I might render some assistance?”
“Well…you could test the hypothesis.”
They stare at each other another long moment. “If I were to turn the knob,” Rabenholz says carefully, “Would you like me to give you a chance to leave first?”
Lovelace smiles. “Well, I should think that quite gentlemanly of you.”
She gathers her skirts and steps out of the small room. Rabenholz takes her place inside and examines the room more closely. A few other notes written in German are scrawled about, but none of them apparently pertain to the functioning of the equipment before him.
Rabenholz checks that Lovelace is clear of the threshold, then carefully grabs the wheel and spins it to the right. There’s a roar of boilers, the room shakes–
–Then the shaking and the noise dies. Nothing else happens.
“Hmm,” Lovelace says from the doorway. “Were you transported to a hellscape from which there is no escape but eternal torment?”
Rabenholz scans the room. “If I was, it appears to be exactly the same as the place I departed from.”
“Then the most logical conclusion would be no.” She nods to herself, face grim. “I must thank you for your participation in my little experiment.”
“I hope it aids your understanding of the situation.”
“It does, actually.” Lovelace squeezes in next to Rabenholz and eyes the egg timer carefully. “Something quite particular has happened with Ms. Johnson. When she turned the wheel, it should have done the same as it did with you. But instead she is incarcerated within the aforementioned hellscape.”
“She has a tendency to do that,” Rabenholz mutters.
“I’ve been trying to render what assistance I may, but the hellscape in particular is quite metaphorical in nature.” Lovelace sighs. “I believe she’s entered some form of post-modern paradox realm designed to represent the epic of Beowulf.”
Instantly, Rabenholz perks up. “Oh? Intriguing!”
“In a metaphorical sense. I believe the realm was initially designed to incarcerate Dr. Siegfried von Natsi.” Lovelace lays one white-gloved hand on the wheel. “Now they are both there, and were I to turn this I would join them.”
“And then you would be trapped there as well.”
“I suspect as much,” she says softly.
The silence lingers. Both of them remain squeezed into the tight space. Finally, Rabenholz makes his way carefully past her to step out of the room. “If you did go there, how would you go about escaping?”
Lovelace is quiet a moment, still staring at the wheel, then takes a breath. “I am not familiar with the particular hellscape in question, but these places tend to have certain rules. One can escape as long as one interfaces with them properly by submitting to a certain acceptance of the underlying conditions. I am uncertain as to whether or not Ms. Johnson is capable of such a thing.”
“Acceptance in what way?”
“In many ways. They are designed, as I understand it, to abate the hubris of those who would otherwise have powers as onto the gods.”
Rabenholz lifts an eyebrow. “Well. I suspect few people escape at all then.”
“It is unfortunately infrequent,” Lovelace agrees with a sigh.
Rabenholz falls silent a moment. “Does any of this have to do with the recent attempt to fake Dr. von Natsi’s murder? An associate of mine was possibly framed for it.”
“I believe so.” Lovelace taps the wheel gently. “I believe someone orchestrated this, arranged to have the good doctor fall afoul of paradox under the understanding that paradox would leave no trace of him, then arranged or fabricated a dead body with which to implicate your fellow.” She falls silent again, staring at von Natsi’s handwriting on the sign, then turns to Rabenholz with a sharp intake of breath. “Will you take tea?”
He blinks at her. “I’m…afraid it’s not very agreeable to me in my current state.”
“I can make arrangements.” She brushes past him and through the lab, eventually arriving at the microwave he found before. Rabenholz watches as she taps a few buttons, lets it power up a minute or two, then opens the door to and removes two steaming mugs, one with tea and one with blood. She hands the blood mug over.
“Thank you.” Rabenholz toasts her. “Anyway, I understand the situation with Ms. Johnson and Dr. von Natsi is very complicated, but if there is any assistance I can render….”
Lovelace takes a deep draught of her tea and sighs. “This is an awkward situation. You see, and do excuse my forwardness, but usually those with your condition are not typically involved in matters of true magic.”
“So I hear, yes.”
Lovelace’s fingers tap against her mug. “Yes. Well, somehow things have become a bit…muddled, particularly where Ms. Johnson is concerned….”
“She will do that.”
Rabenholz sips at his blood and waits for Lovelace to clarify what she means, but the mage sighs and moves on. “My hope was to find a way to retrieve Dr. von Natsi without entering, but the realm appears to be very persistent and I have not had much success. Joining them would risk trapping myself at best, as well as possibly making the situation worse. Increasing the number of mages within a paradox realm increases its complexity, you see.”
“Could you contrive to send a non-mage agent in your stead? Myself, or perhaps Captain Anstis, if he doesn’t object.”
Lovelace begins shaking her head, then stops. She looks up at him thoughtfully. “There is a way,” she says finally. “I could infuse the two of you with the essence of true magic, which might be enough to fool Paradox into accepting you. It would be rather like framing you in the eyes of reality itself.”
Rabenholz lifts one eyebrow. “Sounds positively scandalous.”
Lovelace smiles around the lip of her mug. “Quite.”
Rabenholz puts down his mug and pulls out a phone. “I will give the captain a call.”
Anstis exits Chinatown on foot, searching for opportunities to grab a quick snack, when his phone rings with Rabenholz’s call. Rabenholz gives a brief rundown on the paradox realm, being sure to mention it as a possible lead on the von Natsi framing. At that, Anstis agrees to join in the expedition.
Before shifting back into parrot-form to fly to the tower, though, Anstis makes another call: Fatima, the only other known Assamite in the area besides Cantor.
“Speak,” she answers roughly.
“This is Thomas Anstis, we met some weeks ago.”
“I know who you are.”
Anstis glances around him. “I hope I am not overstepping my bounds by calling, but I have a question. Would you be interested in a Kindred of the East?”
“The Eastern Kindred are not my mission,” Fatima responds sharply, then hesitates. “…But I do not say no. What bargain do you wish to set?”
“This is merely an inquiry.”
“I am not your private executioner. Unless you wish a contract. Then we speak on another term.”
(Jim: “What do I know of contracts with the Assamites?”
Jason: “They’re serious fucking business.”)
Anstis grins. “State your price.”
Fatima is silent a moment. “I will contact you,” she says finally, then hangs up.
Anstis shrugs, tucks his phone away, then transforms to fly to the tower.
With still the better part of an hour to kill until Thrace arrives, Scout goes to walk the Chantry again, idly fiddling with the stolen key around her neck.
Suddenly she stops, looks at the key, then turns to head back to the parlor room, rapidly.
Bob and Dug are still there watching the movie, now joined by the cat. “Bob,” Scout says as she enters and waits for him to scramble to his feet. “The Regent has some business she will need attending to soon, but she wanted me to show you this….” She takes the chain off her neck and holds up the key, “…and ask if you could make a copy. Within the next hour.”
Bob gapes at it. “I…don’t know if I should….”
Scout pulls out her phone. “Do you want me to contact her to confirm?”
Bob stares at the key, stares at Scout, then turns to the cat. “Should I….?” he whimpers.
The cat blinks up at him slowly.
“…Okay.” Bob grabs the key from Scout’s hand and takes off.
Dug, oblivious to the exchange, is still staring at the TV, but the cat turns its yellow gaze to Scout. Scout scoots away from its stare and leaves to continue exploring the Chantry. She makes her way to the highest floors, most of them filled with richly-apportioned quarters, as well as an observatory looking out onto a clear night, even though the sky outside was overcast when she came in.
Finally, she returns to the dungeons and the room with the crated mirrors once again. She glances at them, then continues deeper into the dungeons, further than her last visit. From here, the storerooms and work spaces get more…interesting. The equipment she finds grows increasingly bloodstained. Cloudy glassware filled with unidentifiable liquids lurk in the corners of labs. Out of the corner of her eye she catches glimpses of shapes moving within. Finally, she reaches an room the size of a three-car garage equipped with spikes on every wall, a ceiling that appears to lower, and drains embedded in the floor.
“That seems like overkill,” she mutters and reads the tarnished brass plaque mounted outside the door: “MASTER EXSANGUINITORY”
Running footsteps approach. She turns to see Bob hurrying down the hall toward her, two keys held aloft. “I have the key–!” He stops, eyes darting between her and the exsanguinitory door. The blood drains from his face. “…Did…did I do something wrong?”
“No, this is fine.” She takes the keys from his shaking grip. “These both work identically? Enchantments and all?”
Bob nods rapidly. “Yes!”
She examines them carefully. Not only do the carvings match, but he somehow managed to match the tarnishing. “Good.” She nods and puts one back on the chain around her neck, then tucks the other one safely away.
(Me: “Probably in my bra.”)
Bob wrings his hands nervously. “Anything else?”
“Yes, actually, do you know what this is?” Scout says, digging around in one of her jacket pockets.
(Jason: “What what is?”
Me: “The other thing I stole from Vannevar Hughes’s body.”)
She pulls out a small metal box in the shape of a star and holds it toward him. Bob eyes it. “Oh, yes I do!” he says, smiling beatifically. And doesn’t continue.
(Kara: “I’m so proud.”)
“…What is it?” Scout prompts, glaring.
“Oh! It’s a sarcophagus key.”
Bob blinks. “What?”
She rolls her eyes. “Show me.”
Bob leads her further down the hall to a large storeroom filled with stone sarcophagi propped up against the wall. Scout paces slowly down the line, examining the runes covering their pitted surfaces. “Are these filled at the moment?”
“Not all of them,” Bob replies.
“What’s in the ones that are filled?”
She turns to him. “What sort of people?”
Bob shifts nervously. “I’m not ordered to know.”
Scout frowns at him, then takes the key and slots it into the matching slot on the nearest sarcophagus and twists it. There’s a grinding groan and the lid creaks open. A withered corpse is strapped inside, vaguely male-shaped. The desiccation, though, seems less like a torpored vampire and more just a dead corpse. She opens a few more, finding various shapes of people in an assortment of clothes, but all identically long-dead.
Scout closes the last one and turns away. “Well. Our guest should be arriving soon. Go…find something to clean.”
Bob nods. “Yes, Ms–Uh, what is your title?”
She smiles thinly. “Scout.”
“Yes, Ms. Scout!” He runs off.
Scout pulls her phone to check the time, compares the keys once again, then goes back up to the office to wait.
Rabenholz and Professor Lovelace are waiting at the elevator as Anstis steps out into the lab. “Captain, thank you for joining us,” Rabenholz says, gesturing at the mage. “This is Ms. Lovelace, an associate of Dr. von Natsi and Ms. Johnson.”
Anstis sweeps off his hat in a bow. Lovelace nods, staring at his beard. “Charmed. I shall get right to the point. Your colleague, Ms. Johnson, has become trapped in an allegorical representation of an eighth-century Germanic myth.”
“Beowulf, she says,” Rabenholz adds. “Is this not exciting, Captain?”
Anstis stares at him. “Beowulf? Is that a ship?”
Rabenholz and Lovelace trade a Look, then Lovelace continues, “I unfortunately cannot enter the realm. The powers that be would object to my presence, but I suspect they would not object to yours.”
Rabenholz gestures into the lab. “If you are ready, captain.”
Anstis, still looking confused, nods carefully. Lovelace opens her purse–a small beaded clutch–and draws out two crystal vials, each glowing slightly, and each seemingly too large to have fit in the bag. She hands one to each vampire. “You will need to imbibe these.”
Rabenholz holds it up. “What is it?”
“In a word? It is ether.”
Anstis pops the cork out and sniffs his. “I’ve smelled this before, on a tiny clockwork dragon Ms. Johnson had.”
Lovelace hesitates, frowning suspiciously. “Of course,” she mutters. “Of course….”
Rabenholz uncorks his vial. The two trade a glance, then drink at the same time. Then, a moment later, simultaneously reel.
(Jason: “Rabenholz, it tastes like when you were twelve and had your first sips of brandy. And that was real brandy back then, none of this cherry-cordial bullshit you get now. Anstis, it takes like a hit from Bartholomew Robert’s punchbowl–Wait, sorry, Roberts was a teetotaller. Howell Davis’s punchbowl.”
Chris: “Not Jonathan Flowers’ punchbowl?”
Jason: “Nooo, no…. That punchbowl was ill-advised.”)
“Now then, Gentlemen,” Lovelace says seriously, ignoring their unsteadiness. “I need you to accompany me into the fusion chamber.”
She sweeps through the lab, Rabenholz and Anstis following once they recover their balance. Lovelace gestures them into the tiny control room and they both squeeze carefully in. From outside the room, Lovelace takes a pair of long-handled opera glasses from her purse and examines the two of them through them. After a moment, she nods and flicks one gloved finger. Behind them, the ships-wheel jerks hard to the right.
Instantly, they’re gone.
AN ALLEGORICAL REPRESENTATION OF BEOWULF
Georgia still sits on the throne, sword in her lap, watching the door, and waiting.
(Kara: “I cast prestidigitation.”
Jason: “What is that?”
Kara: “It’s a DnD spell.”
Jim: “It does a very wide array of very minor things.”
Jason: “…Okay, well, you cast prestidigitation, and a pirate appears.”)
Suddenly Anstis appears next to the coals of the fire pit, followed by Rabenholz a moment later. Rabenholz eyes the hall with interest, stopping as he sees her. “Ms. Johnson. I understand you’re trapped in Beowulf?”
Georgia stands, raising the rusted sword at them. “Are either of you Tom Lytton’s mother?”
They stare at her. “No….” Anstis says slowly.
“Then what are you doing here?”
“Because you called me an hour ago and asked for assistance,” Rabenholz says firmly.
Georgia lowers the sword. “Oh, well, you were slow about it, but thank you for coming.”
Rabenholz glares. “You’re welcome. I understand this is a realm designed to teach you humility. Have you learned any?”
“Uh….” Georgia looks at the wet smear on the floor that used to be paradox-Tom Lytton. “…No.”
“Well that’s too bad.”
“Have you come to fetch me?” she continues eagerly.
Rabenholz rolls his eyes. “Yes.”
“Great!” She shoves the rusted sword through the belt of her robes. “How do we get out?”
“Ms. Lovelace mentioned something about a specific set of rules we have to follow,” Rabenholz replies.
Georgia glances again at the door. “We probably have to kill Grendel’s mother. She’ll probably show up here, but it may take a couple nights.”
Rabenholz strokes his beard thoughtfully. “Yes, I believe she will try to burn the hall down, will she not?”
(Jason: “Grendel’s mother did burn the hall down, but she was not slain in the attempt. Beowulf had to corner her in her lair.”
Kara: “And then in the weird 3D version he has sex with Angelina Jolie, doesn’t he?”
Chris: “Wouldn’t we all?”
Kara: “…Does that do it for you?”
Chris: “I don’t see why not.”
Jason: “Yeah, I do….”)
“Actually, I think we’ll have to go looking for her in her lair,” Georgia says, then hesitates. “Because meta-gaming.”
Rabenholz nods. “So the question is, where is her lair?”
“Why is Dr. von Natsi in a cage?” Anstis asks suddenly.
All three gather around the cage. Underneath, von Natsi mumbles in a fitful sleep.
“The cage was for his protection,” Georgia says. “I’m worried about him.”
“Isn’t it a little late to be worrying?” a new voice calls through the hall.
Anstis and Rabenholz turn. Georgia doesn’t, and frowns. “Ah. That is the paradox spirit. It is very polite, but not very nice.”
“I don’t think you are the best person to be deciding who is nice and who is not,” the spirit says, carefully picking his way around the muddy patch on the floor, suit as neat and grey as it was before.
Georgia turns finally and smiles politely at him, then gestures at Rabenholz and Anstis. “You asked if I had friends. Well, here are my friends, come to rescue me.”
The spirit eyes them, bland face expressionless. “These are not your friends. You’ve never really had friends.”
“Then what was Jawahar?”
The spirit smiles. “Sacrifice. For the greater good.”
Anstis and Rabenholz frown, puzzled, but Georgia shifts nervously. “Are we going to get into this right now?”
“Do you have something better to get into?” the spirit asks, pausing to examine the willworked cage over von Natsi.
“Yes. We have to find Grendel’s mother.”
“Well that’s simple. She’s in the mountains.”
“And how long will it take us to get there?”
The paradox spirit looks up at her and smiles unsettlingly. “No time at all, I should expect. The question is what will you find.” With that, he disappears.
An awkward silence falls. Georgia breaks it first with an authoritative clap. “Alright, then we shall head to the mountains, and I will carry Dr. von Natsi along with us.” The metal cage dissolves back into dirt with barely a thought from her and she kneels to rebundle von Natsi’s sleeping form.
Rabenholz watches her carefully. “Ms. Johnson,” he says after a moment, “Is Mr. Singh dead?
Georgia stops, a pile of furs in hand. “Why do you ask?”
“The…spirit…mentioned something about a greater sacrifice.”
Georgia hesitates a moment, then resumes wrapping the furs around von Natsi. “Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.”
“And did Mr. Singh make the ultimate sacrifice? It would be a shame to lose such a potent ally.”
Georgia stands, von Natsi sprawled across her arms. “Well, he isn’t lost, per se, but I’m afraid you won’t be seeing him in the usual fashion anymore.”
“Did you kill him?” Anstis suddenly chimes in.
Georgia cocks her head. “I wouldn’t put it quite so bluntly, but…yes.”
Anstis and Rabenholz stare at her, both looking like they’re about to question more, when suddenly Dr. von Natsi jolts awake and starts screaming in German, mostly piecemeal proclamations about etheric science being the only truth.
“Ms. Johnson, you may want to find a way to keep the doctor quiet,” Rabenholz says firmly, glancing at the hall door. “It might not do to attract attention before we are ready.”
Georgia shifts the mage in her arms and pats him awkwardly. He calms down but continues to mutter. “Ze golem….” he whispers.
Georgia leans close. “What about the golem?”
“…Will resolve the paradox realm?” she finishes eagerly.
For a brief moment, his eyes open and meet hers through his twig-rimmed goggles. “Nein…ze…paradigm.”
They flutter shut and he falls limp in her arms once again. After trading a silent glance with Rabenholz and Anstis, Georgia exits the hall and leads them on the path toward the mountains.
At almost exactly an hour after their initial phone call, there’s a knock at the office door and Bob lets in Oliver Thrace. Scout, standing behind the desk, nods curtly and gestures for Bob to leave them.
“Ms. Scout.” Thrace glances briefly around the room.
“Mr. Thrace. Or should I say Regent Thrace.” She indicates a chair in front of the desk.
Thrace smiles thinly and remains standing. “I haven’t been regent in some time. Not since the handover.”
“Well, this seems to be a city where many have found a new start.”
“The last three regents of this city met a quick and unseemly end. I should not like to join them.” He glances at the room’s decor again, disdainfully. “I believe you have something for me.”
“I do. But first I need assistance with…my end of the bargain.”
He nods coolly. “I expected you might.”
Scout moves toward the door. “Shall I show you what I need?”
“By all means,” Thrace says, following.
(And the details of the plot are still secret at this time!!)
AN ALLEGORICAL REPRESENTATION OF BEOWULF
The drizzling night continues unabated around them as they pass through the forest, rising up into low foothills and eventually to the base of craggy mountains spearing the clouds above them in the dark. They eventually find a twisting goat path leading higher, climbing to elevations where grimy patches of snow huddle against the rocks. Eventually the trail ends at the mouth of a cave, buried in the granite.
Rabenholz peers inside. “Find a safe place to secure the good doctor. Whatever happens in here, we don’t want him getting caught in the crossfire.” Not far into the mouth of the cave, Georgia finds a nook to tuck von Natsi, camouflaging him under this furs. Once he’s secured, they plunge deeper into the dark.
The cave narrows to a tunnel, twisting, then eventually opens into a huge cavern, softly lit by oil lamps hanging from the ceiling. Rich upholstery hangs from the walls and pillows pile amongst towering stalagmites. In the center of the cavern is an overstuffed chaise lounge made of deep velvet. Draped across it is a slim woman in a long, clinging dress, a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, gently dabbing at a canvas propped on a stand nearby. She sighs and sips at her glass as they enter, but doesn’t react to their presence. After a full minute, they carefully move deeper into the cavern to see what she’s painting.
(Jason: “Each of you look at this painting and see something different.”
Chris: *turns to Kara, affects Rabenholz voice* “Ms. Johnson, do you see something different?”
Jason: “Fuck you. Chris, Rabenholz sees a painting of himself, standing in a field of corpses, drinking from a glass of blood, faded torn banners hanging from the trees, praising his glory in the night. Georgia, you see an image of someone who looks very much like you, but bound in a straight jacket and chained to a wall in a dark dungeon, screaming at the skies. Anstis, you see yourself surrounded by a swirling storm of what appear to be spirits, all bearing sickles, scythes, and rusted swords.”
Jim: “Hmm. How am I portrayed in this?”
Georgia finally steps forward and waves cheerily. “Hello!”
The woman looks up, scoffs, then turns back to the painting.
Anstis eyes the canvas distastefully. “It would seem you’ve been expecting us.”
“Of course I’m expecting you.” The woman dabs again and sips her wine. “Where else would you go?”
“Then I suppose we needn’t introduce ourselves,” Georgia says.
Rabenholz scans the furnishings of the cavern. “How long have you been here?”
“Mm, I can’t recall.” She puts down her wine glass and picks up a tray of paint. “It’s not important.”
“Are you Grendel’s mother?” Rabenholz asks?.
“Oh yes,” she murmurs, dabbing a new color on the canvas.
“Do you know what’s supposed to happen after we slay you?”
She chuckles disdainfully. “Oh, good, someone’s read the book.”
“There are three of us,” Anstis blurts, still staring at the canvas, “Why did you single me out with your painting?”
Rabenholz eyes him oddly. “Single you out, Captain?”
Georgia glances nervously back toward the entrance of the cave. “Well, a painting wasn’t in the story, so I don’t really see how it can get…us…out….”
She trails off as the woman’s chuckles roll through the cave. She turns finally to face them, fixing her cool, grey gaze on Anstis. “Why wouldn’t I single you out, Captain? You’re the one who’s damned.”
He scowls at her. “We all are.”
“Mm, not like this. You don’t even know it. Fifty chances you had to avoid it and you ignored them all. You’re all damned, but not like this.” She eyes the others. “You see, you killed, and you lied. But you…” She tilts her brush at Anstis and smirks. “Oh, there’s no word. Betrayal isn’t strong enough. Foolishness isn’t stupid enough.”
Anstis’s beard twists. “I haven’t betrayed anyone.”
“You never betray, Captain? Really? Cause I happen to remember you having an agreement. And you broke it.”
“An agreement with whom?”
In response, the woman smiles again and makes a few more adjustments on the canvas. Satisfied, she tilts the painting to face them. New figures have appeared, visible to everyone, and animated like a cartoon, pacing and talking to each other. Rabenholz and Georgia eye it curiously, but Anstis realizes that, unlike the previous painting, this is showing an explicit memory: himself, in the Shadowlands, talking to a wraith.
(Jason: “A wraith who offered you something. Do you remember? It was so long ago….”
Jim: “…Not Carlos?”
Jim: “I…don’t remember this….”
Jason: “Pity.” *turns to me* “Do you?”
Me: *nods seriously* “The first time Anstis and Georgia went to the Shadowlands, a wraith pulled each of you aside individually and gave each of you an option for a deal.”
Jim: “…Oh, right!”
Me: “Yeah. That wraith had one-eye.”
Jim: “……Oh fuck! Is that the one I sent to Hell?”
Jason: “Yeah. You did.”
Jim: “As I recall, he didn’t like me.”
Jason: “Well, whether or not he did, he likes you a lot less now.”)
“But it’s far worse than that, Captain,” the woman says, putting her brush down. “Who do you think you were dealing with?”
Anstis strokes at his beard. “As I recall I chose not to betray Ms. Johnson.”
“How noble of you. You just chose to betray your benefactor.” She smiles at his confusion. “You don’t know? You can’t guess? No student of history, you?”
Anstis stares at her blankly as she rises slowly to her feet, silk dress cascading like water to the floor of the cave. “How many encounter a wraith so strong and so skilled as to elude the gaze of a necromancer within the Shadowlands, one capable of offering you something, one associated with all of this? Where would such a wraith have come from? It would have to be powerful. Driven. Old. But you never asked. You just assumed all one-eyed men were the same, that he must be your old boatswain and tortured him accordingly, with no conception of who you were actually dealing with.”
“I don’t recall he ever told me his name,” Anstis grumbles.
Her laugh echoes around them. “Would you really expect a wraith to volunteer his true name to a necromancer?” She turns to Rabenholz and Georgia, watching with similarly confused faces. “Did neither of you even suspect? When he found the wraith in the Skinlands, where was it?”
“I understand Mr. Anstis caused a problem with the bathroom….” Rabenholz says slowly.
“He summoned the wraith there, yes, but a wraith that strong is not easily bound by one unprepared.” She turns her smile back to Anstis. “He choose to stay there, at the top of the Pyramid. Why? Who could he be looking for?” Still grinning, she undulates closer to him. “You really have no idea, do you?”
“Nay,” Anstis replies.
The woman lifts a hand as if to run it along his chin, but merely brushes the air. “How many one-eyed men could you possibly be associating with?” she whispers. “Or maybe the sons of them?”
(Jason: “Chris. How well-read is Rabenholz in the classics?”
Anstis stares at her blankly. She turns to Rabenholz and smiles. “For it is a strange trick of history,” she says with the cadence of recitation, “that all the great captains of our age should have but one eye.”
(Jason: “Chris, Intelligence + Academics, difficulty six.”
Chris: “…Two successes.”
Jason: “You recognize what she just said. It’s a quotation from a Greek biographer of the second century AD, named Plutarch, who wrote biographies of great men from his time. And the quote that she just recited…was from this one.”)
She continues reciting, her voice echoing through the cave as if reverberating through a much larger space, “I will therefore make this addition to the collection of strange coincidences throughout history. The most warlike of generals, and those who achieved most by a mixture of craft and ability, have been one-eyed men. Philip, Antigonus, Hannibal, and the subject of this life…Quintus Sertorius.”
As she speaks, Rabenholz’s face falls. She smiles and turns back to Anstis. “Do you know now who it is you’ve been accosting?”
(Jim: *stares* “Marcus’s…father?!”
Jason: “What did he first ask of you, when you first met in the Shadowlands?”
Jim: “I…don’t remember….”
Jason: “Well I do. He asked you your intentions vis-a-vie your patron, Marcus Sertorius, and whether you were a man of wisdom and trustworthiness.”)
Behind her, the painting suddenly vanishes, the figures on it swallowed by a spreading dark. A moment later, a new figure appears in the middle: Anstis again, but mutilated, bound, surrounded by spirits whirling around him in the dark. Far off, in the background of the scene, another figure watches.
A figure indistinct, and small, but casting a shadow very, very long.
“Captain,” the woman purrs in a voice like velvet, “What have you done?”
END OF NIGHT
The reveal of the identity of the One-Eyed Wraith is something I’ve been looking forward to for a long, long time, since I independently figured out who he was almost two real-time years ago and have been keeping the secret ever since. Having never GM’ed a game myself, it was a rare experience to watch a player slowly dig his way deeper and deeper into unknown damnation, and now that the truth is out, I couldn’t help but take a few moments to gloat in it.