Jim: “I’m going to do Illuminate the Trail of the Prey.”
Jason: “On whom?”
Jim: “On the woman.”
Jason: “…Who is….?”
Jim: “Jiao or whatever.”
Jason: “…You don’t remember!?”
Jim: “No! It’s hard to remember!”
Jason: “I’VE TOLD YOU HER NAME EIGHT TIMES TONIGHT!!”
Jim: “Yeah well I didn’t grow up in an area with a large Asian populatio—”
Jason: “Aright, you know what? Raw Intelligence test to see if you remember her name.”
Jim: *rolls* “…Botch.”
RABENHOLZ’S SUITE, MARK HOPKINS HOTEL
The next night falls. Rabenholz wakes up to find a recorded message on his phone from Rhona outlining the details of the previous day, including business interests and her continuing work researching the feasibility of silver-nitrate cloud farming in the East Bay. He listens to it as he goes through his early-evening rituals. As he is practicing his sword katas, though, the recording pauses and the phone rings with an incomming call.
(Jason: “Wait, I feel like we should determine what Rabenholz’s ringtone is.”
Jim: “It’s probably something incredibly boring, like Telephone Ringer Noise.”
Chris: “That would be my guess too, though I like the idea of it being the Imperial March or something.”
Me: “Maybe Rhona set it up to be that, but you don’t know what the song is, so everytime the phone rings you’re like, ‘What is this excellent tune…?’”
Jason: “No, it’d be something more classical. Something he’d know.”
Chris: “Like what, Holst? The Planets?”
*a pause, then:*
Rabenholz peers at the screen, then puts down his sword and answers. “Ms. Scout.”
“Lord Rabenholz,” she greets him. “I’ve been investigating the missing Baron Leeland.”
He paces the room. “Very good, have you discovered something? It is imperative we find Leeland. For his own protection. There are rumors going about he abducted Mr. Lytton, and the sooner we have conclusive proof the better. I don’t want vigilantes taking things into their own hands.”
(Jason: “Yes. That is definitely what you’re worried about right now.”)
Scout hesitates a moment before continuing. “From what I gather, when Leeland left the building he got in a car and disappeared. By the time I got there, I wasn’t able to follow any further.”
Rabenholz’s eyes narrow. “…Indeed.”
“But I have interroga—I mean chatted—with some of his staff in Berkeley. Some of the things they’re saying lead me to believe that Cantor may have been behind his disappearance.”
Rabenholz frowns. He’s quiet a moment, absently fingering the hilt of his sword. “That is interesting information. Perhaps I will pay Saint Ignatius church a visit. Very good, Scout.”
“Is there anything else you need at this time?”
Rabenholz stares out the windows a moment. “I am still very concerned about the whereabouts of Benjamin Smith. Neither you nor anyone else seems able to find him. It is most disappointing. If you feel the trail is cold, then I have no further work for you, but if there is more you can look into, then I am of course interested.”
Scout is quiet a moment. “I will consider it.”
“If you would like to join me at the church I will be there in one hour.”
She hesitates again. “I am still in the East Bay, it may take me some time to get there, but I will also keep it in mind.”
“Very good then. Thank you for the information.” Rabenholz hangs up, then begins the next part of his nightly routine: buffing up his ritual protections.
Paul wakes up in far less comfortable surroundings, crawling his way out of the drainage pipe and ineffectively brushing at the mud and dried leaves layered onto his clothes. After a few moments he gives up and climbs back onto the road, following it through the woods back to the entrance of the tunnel, sneaking carefully the last few yards to peer over the rise heading down to the clearing in front.
The tunnel is closed. A single, solid, massive plate has been welded over the entrance. All of the guards and vehicles once guarding the clearing are gone.
Paul frowns and pulls out his phone to try calling Sophia again. There’s no answer. Next, he tries Georgia. No answer.
(Jason: “You get Georgia’s voicemail.”
Me and Jim: “Believe it or not, Georgia isn’t at home, please leave a message at the beep—”)
Anxiety growing, Paul hangs up. He hesitates, then tries Marcus’s number again.
(Jim: “What’s Marcus’s voicemail?”
Chris: “Believe it or not, Marcus isn’t—”
Me: “Actually it’s the same song—”
Everyone: “—But in Latin.”)
The call rings and rings, then finally picks up, though no one says anything. Paul waits. After a few moments, a voice speaks in a language that sounds something like Latin.
(Chris: “Salutem Magister!”
Chris: “I believe you’re supposed to reply, ‘Salve.’”
Me: “Vale, Puella!”
Jason: “Did everyone just start speaking in tongues?”
Me: “No we began speaking in the shitty bits of Latin we remember from high school.”
Jason: “Wow, with your pronunciation I didn’t even recognize that as Latin.”
Me: “Fuck you!”)
“Hello?” Paul says. “Hello, I can’t understand you—”
There’s a sound of someone fumbling with the phone, then the call hangs up.
Paul leans against one of the trees, slowly sliding to sit at its base in the dirt. Night-time forest sounds echo around him. He huddles against the trunk, staring into the engulfing darkness…
…Then, in his hand, his phone buzzes with a text.
He looks down. PAUL? it says.
It’s from Sophia.
He scrambles to type a reply: Sophia! I’m outside! Where are you?
I’M INSIDE. THINGS BAD. REALLY BAD.
He peers around the tree to check the sealed tunnel entrance again. How can I help?
DON’T KNOW. OKAY FOR NOW, HAVE DRAGON.
(Chris: “…I text back, ‘Dragon-emoji.’”)
Is there anyone I should contact?
He looks around. How do I get more werewolves?
There’s no response for a few moments, then: …POLLUTE?
Paul sighs. Is the Cajun with you?
There’s another hesitation. The reply that follows is simply a face-palm emoji.
I could go back to the city, talk to the government, Paul offers.
NO GOVERNMENT. A pause. NEED HELP.
Paul grimaces. Who do you need me to talk to?
…YOU WON’T LIKE IT.
It’s okay, it’s time for Ellison and I to bury the hatchet.
Another pause. COULD REALLY USE TOM.
Paul exhales slowly. Funny you should mention that, he types carefully. Apparently he’s been abducted by the Sabbat archbishop in San Jose.
Give me a second. Paul tabs over to his contacts-list and finds the number for Liedesdorff.
TOM’S LOCATION, SABBAT TERRITORY
Consciousness slowly surfaces and I open my eyes. I’m on a cot in an empty concrete room, but at least my sight has returned, thank god. Hesitantly, I sit up and take stock of myself. All major appendages seem to be accounted for, but my shirt is gone, there’s barely any pants left, and my bruised chest aches like it’s been broken open and half-healed multiple times.
Which…probably, actually, yeah….
I lie back against the smooth canvas of the cot. Soon I’ll have to figure out some sort of plan for getting out of Sabbat hands, but for right now it’s just nice to be in the quiet, alone—
Friiiiiiiend!! a familiar wheedling voice whispers through my mind.
My eyes snap open. Son of a bitch….
Frieeeeend! Mr. Tails keens again, You came back!
Groaning, I sit up again. It’s been weeks since that damn imaginary squirrel has haunted me, so long I thought whatever Malk curse put it on me in the first place had worn off. I glance around the weathered concrete room, then freeze. Layers of graffiti coat the walls, but behind me, squeezed in among the technicolor hieroglyphs, is a spray-paint cartoon squirrel. Or at least, a squirrel as interpreted by someone with cerebral palsy. On an acid trip.
I eye it suspiciously. The painted figure stares back, frozen in a frenetic buck-toothed smile.
I decide to ignore it, climbing off the cot and stumbling to the door. Hunger is gnawing at me, not as ravenous as when I was healing but enough that it’s hard to ignore. Murmuring echoes on the other side of the door. I open it.
A warehouse sprawls in front of me. Cars, motorcycles, and crates of gear are stacked in the shadows of the space but my eye is instantly drawn to freestanding halogen lights illuminating a circle in the center. Folding chairs are set up in rows, occupied by an eclectic mass of people with their backs to me. Some are dressed like paramilitary soldiers, some like Latino gangbangers, all are focused on a chanting woman at the front of their congregation, dressed in tattered layers of black cloth forming the vague shape of a dress, with a low neckline revealing a tattoo of the Sabbat logo on her thin chest. At the moment she’s standing at what looks like a baptismal font.
Except it’s being filled from the slashed throat of a man clutched in her bloodied hands. Two more exsanguinated bodies lie at her feet.
She stops chanting and looks up toward me. Her eyes are bound shut with a strip of the same black as her dress, but somehow I can sense she’s looking right at me. She lets go of the man, leaving him slumped against the font, and raises a dripping hand toward me, smirking. Folding chairs creak as everyone in the room turns around to look. One of them—darker skinned and nicer-suited than the rest—is Leidesdorff.
I freeze in the doorway, staring at almost three dozen pairs of Sabbat eyes. A tense silence falls, blanketed by the stench of blood.
Then a phone rings.
Nobody moves, then Leidesdorff stands and digs a phone out of his pocket. Still glaring at me, he lifts it to his ear. “This is Archbishop Leidesdorff.” A slow smile creeps across his face. “…Paul Stewart,” he says, enunciating clear enough for everyone to hear, “What a wonderful surprise.” He listens a long moment, then lifts an eyebrow. “…You’re saying you want me to send Tom Lytton to Marin County where he can hunt ancient Methuselah vampires and their creepy sex cults?”
Eyes turn to me again.
(Me: “Sooooo, there’s a lot of stimuli going on right now…Tom’s not sure how to process any of this….”)
Silence falls again. After a long moment, the body of the sacrificed man slowly slips from the edge of the font and thumps to the floor.
Welcome back, frieeeeend! Mr. Tails keens excitedly in my mind.
Slowly, eyes locked with Leidesdorff’s, I raise one hand above my head.
“Hold on one second, Mr. Stewart,” Leidesdorff says into the phone, then points to me. “Yes, you in the back?”
I run a hand nervously across my torso. “Anybody dry clean my shirts while I was gone, by any chance?”
The priestess walks stately down the center aisle of her congregation, dress swirling around her like shadow. “Are you here to join the Vinculum?” she asks, voice oddly accented. I recognize it as one of the voices who directed my healing procedures.
I look at the sacrificial font. Despite my hunger, my stomach churns. “Nope, I’m pretty sure Boss told me never to do that without his permission.”
Join the party!!! Mr Tails keens. Nothing to lose but your soul!!!!
“Shut up, shut up,” I hiss under my breath, glancing at Leidesdorff. “He can probably hear you!”
Leidesdorff continues to eye me flatly as he raises his phone back to his ear. “I’m afraid Mr. Lytton is a bit indisposed at the moment. You may have to tell the werewolves to be patient.” A chuckle rolls through the crowd as Leidesdorff hangs up.
I’m suddenly acutely aware of all the eyes on me. “Any chance there’s some chilled blood around I could have?” I glance at the altar. Another captive is crouched quivering nearby. “Again, preference for chilled—”
The priestess eyes me through her bound eyes, cool and implacable as Justice. She gestures to the font behind her. “We have plenty here for all.”
“I’ve gotten used to it cold,” I say. “Used to keep it in my fridge, back at my old place.” Another tense silence. With the weight of everyone’s gaze on me, I make a slow, exaggerated stretch, flexing and popping my new flesh. “But that was before I started working for the Priscus, so, you know….”
The room stirs as the crowd mutters to each other. Leidesdorff bemused smile falls and he strides forward, gesturing sharply to the room behind me. I step back inside and he follows, closing the door behind him. “Feeling better, I see?”
I sit on the cot. “Little bit. Almost back to my original self.”
“So it seems,” Leidesdorff says, glowering.
Mr. Tail’s voice leaps back into my mind, Yaaaaaay, then we can plaaay!!
I continue staring up at Leidesdorff, smiling woodenly. “Look, ah, sir, I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me so far. I know it couldn’t have been cheap. But…whatever blood you used to heal me, did any of it happen to come from…personal ghouls of yours?”
He frowns. “Ghouls?”
“Well, it’s just that I’m not used to your clan’s…ah…view on things, and I’ve been feeling a little off since I woke up here….”
He folds his arms. “Amarinda is the finest Pack Priest in my employ, possibly on the West Coast. Any blood she consecrates is the cleanest the Sabbat can provide.”
A part of me twitches reflexively at the irony buried in that statement, but like the delusional spirit-squirrel, I shove it out of my mind. “…Right, so, how long will the rest of my recovery take, sir?”
“Well that depends on what you call recovery.”
I glance down at the bruises still splashed across my chest and take a deep breath. Pain twinges, warning of broken ribs and cracked vertebrae. “Recovered enough to be mobile,” I reply, “And I could probably make this work for now….”
I trail off as Leidesdorff glares again. “I understand you have notions of going somewhere. But as you suspect, I spent a great deal of time and effort on you and may have made myself quite an enemy in the process.”
I shift on the cot. “You’re talking about Rabenholz?”
I hesitate. “Well, aren’t you supposed to be enemies anyway?”
Leidesdorff glare turns icy. “I see he couldn’t make you less thick.”
I poke carefully at my bruises. “He certainly tried.”
Leidesdorff rolls his eyes. “As I was saying, if you go down to Orlando’s, I might lose my investment.”
Dread churns through me. I lean onto my knees, staring at the floor. Orlando might be the key I need to save the city from my disease, but that “might” was a big one. If there was nothing else to lose, it would be worth the risk.
But now, it seems, there is something else to lose. More specifically, people who will lose without me there.
“I can’t go south right now,” I mutter to the floor. “I don’t have what I need to finish that. But I can’t go north cause I don’t have the pieces I need to make that happen either.”
“Why would you go north?”
I look up at him. “Because I got investments too.”
Leidesdorff watches me in silence a moment. “If you go south,” he says slowly, “you may not come back, and if you go north, I know you won’t. Why is it so important you run off and get killed again?”
I knead my folded hands together. “Cause there are people I have obligations to.”
Leidesdorff’s shoes scrape against the concrete as he strides closer. “If by ‘your people’ you mean the Priscus and various assorted werewolves, Sertorius has gone dark and your pets haven’t been seen in days. It might be safe to say you’re free from any obligations therein.” He leans close. “Which means the only thing left of any value is my investment. And as I’ve said, I don’t relish explaining the loss of said investment to those whom I have arranged it with.”
As I stare back into his cold brown eyes, Mr. Tails suddenly springs to life again: You should eat him. Then you could see me all the time!
I plaster what I hope is an amiable smile on my face. Leidesdorff returns it thinly. “I’ll let you and the squirrel talk it over,” he says.
With that, he turns and leaves.
Anstis flutters out of the sky to land on the edge of the island and transforms back up into human-form. Reconstruction on the explosion-rocked ruins is well underway—caution tape and construction equipment scattered everywhere—but at the moment the windswept rock is empty. Anstis makes his way to a stairwell heading deep into the hidden bowels of the complex and descends.
The depths of the island are even more silent than the surface. Most of the Tremere gargoyle-making equipment has been removed, but Anstis finds his way to a room where a teleportation circle is still inscribed on the floor. He kneels to check that the magic is still functional, then, satisfied, stands.
Fatima is there, standing on the far side of the circle where nothing was a moment before, a statue of dark skin and armored clothes, watching him with pearl-bright eyes from under the shadows of her shawl.
“Fatima,” Anstis greets her, bowing elegantly.
“Captain.” She eyes the circle. “You are resolved in this matter then. Do you have the first conception of what it is we hunt?”
“I’ve met her once. We fought.”
“You are alive. It must not have gone so badly.”
“I gathered this.” Anstis pulls out the small vial of essence he gathered the last time he met Xia.
Fatima takes the vial and examines it. “Corruption….” she hisses, and hands it back. “With this you can find her?”
Anstis grins. “Better. I can take us both to where she is.”
“And if a thousand demons lie in wait?”
“Then we fight a thousand demons.” Anstis grins. “If the situation proves highly unfavorable, cloak yourself and flee and we shall meet at a later date.”
Fatima eyes him a long moment. “If you betray me, no one know what became of you.”
Anstis grins wider, then kneels to adjust the spell of the circle. “I have no intention to.” He primes the circle to target Xia’s location, gestures for Fatima to step in, follows her, and activates it.
Anstis appears on wood planks. Strangely familiar wood planks. It’s the forecastle of a ship, a schooner, sails filled and stretching above him into darkness. He peers around, but the foggy gloom is so thick he can’t even see the water lapping at the hull. From what he can see, though, there’s no sign of Fatima. He walks toward the stairs leading down to the main deck and looks down.
Three individuals are below him, partly lit by the torches lining the deck. They turn to look at him. Xia stands in front in her green satin dress, long hair pulled into a bun with a bright red orchid tucked into it, petals half-draped across her face. She eyes Anstis with a curiously serene expression, hands clasped within her flowing sleeves.
Standing next to her…is Emperor Joshua Abraham Norton the First.
Anstis opens his mouth to shout at them, but stops as the third figure steps from the shadows. At ten feet tall she towers over Xia and Norton. Her torso, though, is a normally-proportioned human woman. But her entire lower body is a giant spider.
(Me: “Oh my god, is she The Stalk!?”
Me: *scrambles for a picture* “I mean, she doesn’t have human arms, but the rest is pretty spot on.”
Jason: “That’s…creepy as fuck, yeah we’ll go with something like that.”)
Anstis collects himself and swaggers down the stairs. “I have come to speak with Xia. Or perhaps more than speak. We have business.”
A low hiss rolls across the deck from no apparent source: “Lies….”
Norton glowers and steps forward, blustering. “YOU SHOULD NOT HAVE COME!!”
Anstis bows to him. “And why are you here, Emperor?”
“I AM EMPEROR JOSHUA ABRAHAM NORTON THE FIRST, RULER OF THESE UNITED STATES AND PROTECTOR OF MEXICO!!!11!!1!1!!” The torches lining the deck gutter as the sound echoes away. Norton sweeps his arms grandly. “These are my imperial domains!!”
Anstis just grins. “Shall I take my business with your guest elsewhere?”
Norton glares. “DO YOU THINK ME A FOOL??! What you have in mind, sir, is no commerce. It is rape. You and your…PET ASSASSIN!!”
Anstis glances surreptitiously around the deck. There’s still no sign of Fatima. He begins to wonder if she made it through the circle at all. Hiding his anxiety, he turns to the spider lady. “And who be ye?”
“One who does not answer to your filth.” Her voice echoes with a seething clicking, but except for a slight smirk, her mouth remains motionless. “You are a ravening beast.”
Anstis looks her over, from the haughty curve of her human back to the points of her legs spearing the deck. “And ye be an abomination.”
“You know nothing of abominations.” Her arachnid legs lever her high and she raises her arms. Starting at her fingertips, her body dissolves in a dark, glittering cascade, a wave that continues down before his eyes. The dark mass melts across the deck and swarms toward him, chittering.
Anstis jumps back, casting a bolt of Lure of the Flames. The swarm peels back from the heat, then flows forward the moment it stops, chittering louder.
Off to the side, Xia smiles. “What’s the matter, Captain? I thought Gangrel loved all god’s creatures.”
Anstis stumbles back against the stairs and falls. An instant later the swarm is on him, skittering and climbing, thousands of fangs biting any exposed skin they can reach.
(Me: “Everything is spiders!!!!”)
Pain and terror overwhelm him, driving him into a frenzy of panic.
SAINT IGNATIUS CHURCH
Rabenholz steps from his car in front of of Saint Ignatius Church. He gazes up at the lit facade a moment, then strides up the stairs, carrying a flagon of his blood wine and two wine glasses.
Chris: “So I can make friends with Cantor, and we can toast to our friendship.”)
Inside, the church is quiet. The windows are still broken but have been covered with clear tarpaulin and most of the rest of the space has been cleaned. Footsteps echo as Rabenholz strides slowly down the center aisle. “I am Lord Augustus von Rabenholz,” he announces, deep voice rumbling off the stone. “I am here to treat with Cantor.”
Silence greets him. Then, from above, the church bells sound. Thirteen times.
“And why should Cantor treat with you?” A deep voice answers, echoing from the walls. “Who violates his home?”
“Some events have occurred the last few nights,” Rabenholz calls back, still striding down the aisle. “I want to make sure there are no ruffled feathers.”
“And how shall you ensure they are unruffled?”
Rabenholz scans the shadows. “Well first, I don’t know to what degree Cantor was involved at all. Perhaps someone was using his reputation, perhaps without his knowledge.”
“One assumes the knowledge of Cantor at one’s own risk.”
“I imagine. Ergo, part of the purpose of this meeting. Misconceptions can be so damaging, can’t they?” Rabenholz ascends the stairs to the front dias and stops. “I wish to know the truth of the situation myself and offer my friendship.”
“Friendship? You are a prince of the ivory tower. You cannot come in friendship to the Hand.”
“Perhaps.” Rabenholz idly examines the gold-threaded silk draped across the the altar. “And yet there are many rumors about Cantor’s official affiliation with the Hand.”
“And so you enter to satiate yourself. Uninvited. As you did before.”
Rabenholz glares. “I arrived here last night in pursuit of something that was mine.”
For a moment, the walls rumble. “When I choose to take, I shall take. When I choose to kill, I shall kill. And when I choose that you or others suffer, they will.”
Silence falls. Rabenholz stares coolly out into the cavernous space. “Was it you who stole Tom Lytton?”
A deep chuckle echoes around him “I steal nothing. I possess. And I possess much that was once Tom Lytton’s.”
“Well. I am very sorry for your burden.” Rabenholz sets the wine on the altar. He carefully pours two glasses. “I came here to offer you some wine. My own creation.”
“You do not drink wine. You drink fear. And lies. And pain. What vintage is this, I wonder?”
“Well, a lifetime of fear and lies, but I believe this one is primarily…” he lifts the flagon and sniffs a moment, “…a doctor.”
A rumble echoes again, deepening into a growl.“You know nothing of what happens here. You squabble in the mud for trinkets and castoffs of your betters. Grubby men with grubby minds. You are unworthy. Leave.”
Rabenholz stares out into the darkness a long moment, then nods. “So be it. Enjoy the wine.” Leaving the blood on the altar, he sweeps back down the aisle.
(Chris: “…Man, what a douche.”
Jim: “And that’s coming from a Ventrue!”)
The street outside is quiet, but the distant hiss of late-night traffic is practically cacophonous after the tomb-like air of the church. Rabenholz stops on the front stairs and pulls out his phone to call Scout. “Ms. Scout. I expected you here sooner. What are your whereabouts?”
“Traffic, I’m afraid,” she replies. “There’s some sort of accident on the bridge.”
“I see. Well my business at Saint Ignatius is completed….” Rabenholz trails off. A strange echo of his voice lingers after every word he says. Very faint, but he’s heard the same effect before: when he called her after sending her through the circle in his hotel suite to look for Benjamin Smith.
“Is everything alright?” Scout asks.
“Yes, everything is fine,” Rabenholz says carefully. He scans the sidewalk around him. His waiting towncar is the only thing visible at the moment. “We should resume our search for Benjamin Smith, starting at his last known place. Meet me in Candlestick park in half an hour. That should be enough time to clear the bridge.”
“…That sounds fine,” Scout says after a moment.
“I will await you there.” Rabenholz hangs up and strides down to his car.
Anstis comes back to his senses listening to the crash of waves. After a moment he sits painfully up and peers around. He’s on a rocky beach choked with flotsam. Off in the distance the red glow of the Golden Gate Bridge shines through the thin fog. In the middle of the channel, a container ship chugs steadily against the current. There’s no sign of the schooner. Or its passengers.
Grumbling, Anstis climbs to his feet, brushing sand from his soggy clothes.
(Jim: “I’m going to do Illuminate the Trail of the Prey.”
Jason: “On who?”
Jim: “On the woman.”
Jason: “…Who is….?”
Jim: “Jiao or whatever.”
Jason: “…You don’t remember!?”
Jim: “No! It’s hard to remember!”
Jason: “I’VE TOLD YOU HER NAME EIGHT TIMES TONIGHT!!”
Jim: “Yeah well I didn’t grow up in an area with a large Asian populatio—”
Jason: “Aright, you know what? Raw Intelligence test so see if you remember her name.”
Jim: *rolls* “…Botch.”)
Anstis struggles with the still-new ritual a few minutes, then gives up.
Extending his claws, he digs into the rock and makes his way slowly up the cliff-face. About halfway up, he reaches what looks like a sewer outflow. He climbs inside and makes his way through the darkness until he reaches a grate to the open sky above and climbs out.
He appears in the middle of an upscale residential neighborhood, with manicured landscapes and Teslas parked in the driveways. Still, he stares around cautiously as he lowers the drain cover back down. There’s no sound but the damp wind through the trees. Frowning, he stands and moves to stride down the street.
Until the street grows an arm and grabs him.
Anstis yells and tries to jerk away, but he’s held firm as an enormous gargoyle pulls its way out of the ground, red eyes glaring like embers and skin darkened to the color of the asphalt birthing it.
“What do ye want?” Anstis says.
The gargoyle’s eyes narrow. “Retribution….”
Moments before it smashes him unconscious against the pavement.
Rabenholz’s car cruises slowly along the access road toward the ruins of the park. The car turns a corner and the headlights reveal Scout standing outside the gates. Rabenholz tells the driver to stop the car and climbs out.
He nods at her. “Ms. Scout. I see you made it through traffic.”
She nods back tersely. “Yes. I have an app for that.”
Rabenholz gestures briefly at the gates, twisting them open with a squeal of metal. “Follow me.”
They make their way through the rubble back to the location of the hidden entrance into the Settite caves below, but something has changed. Actual concrete has been poured over the site, with layers of dirt and rubble piled on-top for good measure.
Rabenholz stops, eyeing the mess silently a long moment, then pulls out his phone to call Rhona. “Ms. Tyler,” he says as she answers, “I will need a steam shovel hired to report to the ruins at Candlestick Park immediately.”
Rhona is quiet a moment. “…I can get on that right away, sir, but…there’s something else. I was actually just about to call you. I’m in the suite at the Sir Francis Drake, and there’s a man here who would like to speak with you.”
“Did he give his name?”
“He didn’t. But he has a gun.”
Instantly, Rabenholz goes still. “Are you in danger?”
Rhona exhales slowly. “Yes, I think that’s fair to say.”
“I’m headed there now. Dont provoke him, keep yourself safe.” Rabenholz hangs up and turns to Scout. “Join me. We must head to the Sir Francis Drake at once.”
SIR FRANCIS DRAKE HOTEL
Twenty minutes later, Rabenholz sweeps into the hotel, Scout hurrying along behind. He asks to speak with the security staff and reviews footage from the elevators and hallway outside the suite. Besides Rhona, no one has apparently entered in the last few hours.
Rabenholz orders the security to stay behind and leads Scout up via the service elevator. While it ascends, he draws and examines his cane sword. “Ms. Scout you have familiarity with cloaking yourself. Do you have confidence in this situation?”
Her hand flutters toward her knife. “I can do my best. Though getting in through a locked door is a little tricky.”
“We will enter at the same time. I trust you will have my back.” He turns to meet her gaze. “Protect my assistant at all costs.”
There’s no Dominate in his words, but Scout stiffens anyway. She watches him a moment, a strange expression on her face, then nods and Obfuscates. Moments later, the elevator dings. Rabenholz tucks his sword away and steps out.
The hallway is silent as they approach the door to the suite. Rabenholz takes the lead, unlocking the door and pausing a moment after opening it to let the invisible Scout slip inside. He follows and enters the main sitting room.
Rhona is there, sitting tall in a chair, cream-colored suit immaculate and face an impassive mask. A man is sitting facing her, his back to the door. As Rabenholz enters, the man turns, flashing a grin under his large, plumed hat.
Flowers gestures grandly with an elaborately-wrought flintlock pistol. “Ahh, you would be the man of the hour.”
Rabenholz stops a few feet away. “You are well informed.”
“I happen to have many, many eyes about.” Flowers turns to Rhona and flicks the gun. “You can go now, dearie.”
Rhona tenses and glances at Rabenholz. Rabenholz nods to her. “Thank you, Ms. Tyler. You may go.”
Rhona nods, gets up smoothly, and leaves to another room of the suite, closing the door behind her.
Flowers eyes Rabenholz, a bemused grin on his face. “There’s no call to have others hidden in the shadows.”
Rabenholz meets his gaze calmly. A moment later, Scout reappears, standing behind him, knife drawn and watching Flowers carefully.
Flowers grins wider. “Now there’s a nice lassie.” He resettles himself in the chair, smoothing at his blue velvet cloak, then turns back to Rabenholz. “I thought we might have a word.”
Rabenholz nods once. “Of course. In the future you may simply make an appointment with me.”
“I’m not the sort who tends to make appointments with others. Especially ones of lower rank.”
“Then you may simply drop by,” Rabenholz responds firmly. “But you will never hold a gun on my assistant again, are we clear?”
Flowers glances at the gun dangling from his fingers, as if seeing it for the first time. “Oh this?” He tosses it to Rabenholz, who catches it from the air.
It’s painted plastic.
Flowers sprawls an arm across the back of the chair and smiles. “I got it at Disneyland.”
Rabenholz sets the toy down on a table. “Very clever.”
“I thought it looked sufficiently piratey, at least by modern opinions. No proper sailor uses a steel weapon at sea.” Flowers cocks his head. “But then there’s another you have in your employ who would know that, wouldn’t he?”
“I suppose so,” Rabenholz mutters.
“And that’s what I came to speak to you about. Captain Anstis. Or ‘captain’ by his own claim anyway. I know a fair brace of sailors who’d have said otherwise. An illiterate fool with more dutch courage than real. He ran from his engagements because he was afraid of me.” Flowers spreads his arms. “And he was right to be. Because here I am.”
“I have seen only a handful of your talents and I agree,” Rabenholz says.
“Oh, my talents are prodigious, son. Don’t you imagine.” Flowers’ gaze tracks to Scout. His smile widens. “Why hasn’t your fair little friend here identified herself? What’s your name, Lassie?”
Scout stares back at the pirate evenly, knife still drawn. Rabenholz steps aside and gestures to her. “May I present Ms. Scout.”
Still grinning, Flowers cocks his head the other way. “Ms. Scout? Well that’s not a proper name.”
“It’s the one I go by,” she says coolly. “That seems proper enough for me.”
“Oh but it’s not the one god gave you.” Flowers leans forward. “Are ye a god-fearing woman?”
“God has had little influence in my life so far,” she responds.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be so cynical as that, lassie. God watches us all. Saints and sinners alike. And he be watching one particular sinner quite closely.” He eyes her another long moment with a twisted grin, then turns back to Rabenholz. “As I was saying, I’m here to inform his lordship that I be ready to take whats mine. You see, I chased down a pirate once by the name of Bartholomew. Black Bartholomew Roberts. And that bilge rat you call Anstis was one of his. I took Black Bart and his ship, I hung his men from the bowsprit, but I never caught Anstis. And I think it’s time I did.”
“As I understand, you’ve had little trouble tracking him the last few weeks,” Rabenholz says.
Flowers chuckles. “I’ve me talents, son, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not everywhere at once. And this will be much easier and much cleaner if I have your support.”
Rabenholz nods once. “You have my blessing to conclude your quarrel with Captain Anstis.”
Flowers leans back, exaggerated surprise on his face. “So you’ll get to sit back and watch as us seadogs do battle, is that it?”
“Your quarrel predates my association with Captain Anstis. I will not intercede on his behalf. ”
Scout clears her throat gently and leans toward Rabenholz. “Bell has warned Anstis against doing battle within city limits,” she murmurs.
“Bell has made a warning, has he?” Flowers replies loudly. “And who is this Bell? Surely not the Justicar?”
Rabenholz eyes him and nods. “The Justicar indeed.”
Flowers laughs. “Oooh, well now! How does….”
(Jason: *trails off, sighs* “…How do I do this….”
Me: “You mean…how do you be racist without being racist?”
Jason: “…Yeah…I’d rather not record myself uttering period racial epithets, but let’s just assume he uses one.”)
“…How does such a fine young [REDACTED] get the authority to tell an admiral of the fleet what he can and cannot do?”
Scout winces at the slur but Rabenholz doesn’t bat an eye. “Well I assume the city limits don’t extend into the ocean.”
“No I suppose they don’t.” Flowers leans forward again, long stained fingers clasped in his lap. “Would you be so kind as to pass the good captain him a little message for me? Tell him it’s a fine submarine he’s taken for the purposes of destroying me. Tell him I’ll be making it me flagship rather soon. Tell him his crew of the dead aren’t up to the task. Tell him living men are what sail a ship, and it’s not just telling tales dead men can’t do.” He cocks his head and grins. “Tell him all those things, will ya?”
Rabenholz and Scout stare at him a long moment. Finally, Rabenholz nods. “I’ll pass it along.”
“That’s mighty kind of you. I’ll remember ye in my prayers.” Flowers sweeps off his hat and holds it to his chest. “Lord Rabenholz, Ms. Scout. I hope we’ll be seeing each other again soon.”
Flowers’ eyes roll back and he slumps in his chair. An instant later, the illusion cloaking him dissolves. Rabenholz and Scout are left staring at a hotel bellboy sprawled in the same chair. Scout hurries forward to check on him. He’s dead.
(Me: “That’s…not a great sign….”
Meanwhile, Rabenholz picks up the toy gun and strides to the other room to check on Rhona, who’s pacing the space silently. He pulls the door half-closed behind him. “How are you doing?”
Rhona stops, takes a deep breath, and composes herself. “I’m alright. I’m sorry, I didn’t see him come in.”
Rabenholz paces the room, examining the shadows carefully. “He is a master of subterfuge. He possessed the body of a bellboy, deceived you into believing it was him.”
A shudder passes down Rhona’s tall frame. “…What was he?”
“Ravnos. A master of illusion. He has a many centuries-old vendetta with Captain Anstis. This is what he was armed with.” He hands her the gun.
She takes it, staring a moment in disbelief. “I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with historical weapons, I thought it was real—”
“If it should bring you any comfort, he is nonetheless entirely lethal, with or without a weapon. You have not been adequately prepared for dealing with the likes of him.” Rabenholz eyes her a long moment. “But…there is something I can do. Something I can provide to help you defend yourself, to some extent.”
She shudders again. “Against that?”
“Against that. You will still be outmatched, but you will be…less so.” Rabenholz hesitates. “But I must warn you, the process will affect your feelings to me. Cloud your judgement.”
Rhona looks up at him, frowning in confusion.
“You will feel…great affection towards me. But it will be perverse. Jealous, possessive.”
Jim: “Isn’t she already ghouled to you?”
Chris: “No, she’s not.”
Jim: “Oh really!”
Me: “Yeah, she’s just been doing all this stuff of her own fucking accord. Rhona is bad-ass.”)
“Nonetheless,” Rabenholz continues, “Those with great character can see through the haze and understand the situation and their true feelings.”
Rhona’s frown turns suspicious. She sets the gun down. “How does it work?”
“Over the course of three nights I will feed you my blood.”
She stares a long moment. “…Doesn’t that make me a vampire?”
Rabenholz hesitates. “No, that process is…more involved. But you will become powerful, quick. And I will train you to maximise these talents.”
Rhona turns away a moment, thinking. “But my mind wouldn’t be entirely my own….” she says slowly.
Rabenholz nods once. “In a sense.”
Silence lingers in the room. Rhona’s gaze jumps from the gun on the table, to the piles of paperwork stacked on the desk, to the tall cloaked form of Rabenholz himself, looming nearby. Finally, she turns to face him. “I would prefer to avoid that if possible.”
Rabenholz nods again. “Of course. I take no offense.”
“You need me sharp. Not…mooning over you, or whatever.”
“No. I only suggest it because I believe you would overcome that. But all the same, I would rather keep you as sharp as you are right now.”
Rabenholz hesitates a moment, watching her, then gestures vaguely. “You should take the remainder of tonight of. Use whatever expense is necessary to hire a…psychiatrist, or whatever help you think you need.”
Rhona ducks her head and turns toward the desk. “I’ll be fine. There’s a lot to do right now.”
“I am sure another aid can arrange the backhoe at Candlestick Park. Honestly that task is beneath you at this point.”
“Of course.” She hesitates, then picks up a stack of sealed courier-envelopes and moves to leave the room.
As she passes Rabenholz, he holds up a hand to stop her and glances back through the crack in the door. Scout is still hovering over the dead body, poking at it experimentally.
Rabenholz steps toward Rhona and leans in close. “I will not lie,” he murmurs into her ear, “Many of my enemies will outmatch you considerably. That should bring you no comfort, but what I’m about to say next may. If anything should happen to you, I guarantee their lives will be very unpleasant and very brief.”
Rhona stands straight and still, staring into the distance, unflinching at Rabenholz’s presence looming so close to her. “…Can you perhaps guarantee that to them before anything happens?” she says softly.
“I can try.”
Rhona hesitates a moment, breathing shallowly, then nods. “Thank you, sir.” Still avoiding his eyes, she tucks the envelopes under her arm and leaves the suite.
Rabenholz returns to the sitting room. Scout is still staring down at the body, looking uneasy.
“Is everything alright, Ms. Scout?”
She jerks her head up, startled. “…Yes, thank you.”
Rabenholz frowns at her suspiciously, then pulls out his phone to call Anstis.
Anstis wakes up to the sensation of his phone buzzing in his pocket, a cold weight strapping him down, and a deep ache radiating through his chest. It feels as if a stake was recently pulled out of it. He opens his eye and stares around blearily….
…And finds himself tied to a flagpole.
At the top of the Transamerica Pyramid.
The gargoyle is crouched nearby, stake in one hand, claws digging into the aluminum paneling crowning the top of the building. By his size and color, it’s the same one that pried Anstis out of the sarcophagus in the Chantry the night before. Jalut.
Jalut stares at him. Anstis stares back. The phone in his pocket continues to buzz, loud enough to be heard over the wind. Finally, Jalut reaches forward, takes the phone from Anstis’s pocket, keys the button to answer it, then holds the phone up to Anstis’s ear.
Anstis clears his throat. “This be Anstis.”
“Captain,” Rabenholz’s voice greets him. “Your associate Mr. Flowers has left a gift for you in my penthouse suite.”
Anstis tenses against the chains binding him. “He was there?”
“He was. He threatened my chief of staff and asked me to convey a message to you. However my immediate concern is the gift he left.”
“A dead body.”
Anstis glowers. “Ah yes. He leaves many of those in his wake.”
(Jason: *awkward coughing* “Uhhh, pot to kettle!”)
“The body is in good condition,” Rabenholz continues. “I thought you might be able to use it and I would appreciate it being discretely removed from my hotel room.”
“I shall make my way there as soon as I can,” Anstis replies, ignoring Jalut’s glare. “Anything else?”
“Ms. Scout and I are heading to Candlestick park to continue searching for Ben Smith. Where are you?”
Anstis gazes out at the glittering cityscape. “At the Pyramid at the moment.”
“Well, give my best to the Justicar.”
“If I see him I will.” Anstis meets Jalut’s eyes and smirks. “And did you wish to say anything?”
Jalut growls and hangs up, then tosses the phone away into the empty air.
Anstis shifts against his chains. “I assume you brought me here for a reason.”
“You stole from me,” Jalut snarls.
“And what did I steal?”
Aluminum squeals under Jalut’s talons. “Lytton.”
Anstis grins. “Ye can’t steal what’s already yours.”
In one move, Jalut backhands Anstis, smashing his face and almost snapping the flagpole off the roof. “Whats mine is mine!” he roars.
Anstis stretches his jaw, popping it back into place. “It would appear Lytton’s been stolen from both of us. But I know where he is.”
Jalut stills, wings mantled over him. “Where?”
Jalut’s growl turns into a hiss. “Lies. Transparent lies to throw enemies at one another.”
Anstis regards him a moment. “And what interest do you have in Lytton?”
Jalut’s hand snaps out, grabbing the front of Anstis’s coat and bending him—and the flagpole—toward his face. “I do not answer to you….”
Anstis just smiles. “I’ve had quite the night and am not in the mood.”
Jalut snarls. He lifts his other hand, stake clutched firmly in his fist—
(Jim: “I dodge!”
Jason: “…You dodge while tied to a pole?!”
Jim: “Bird form!”
Jason: “Okay, well spend blood and roll for that. Jalut will still try to stake you, but he’ll have trouble with the bird form.”
Chris: “Bet Jalut would have trouble with the octopus form too.”
Jason: “Well, up here everyone would have trouble with the octopus. The octopus—”
Everyone: “—Would be in the way.”
Me: “He’d be pretty impressive, though, clinging to the tip of the Pyramid. Like King Kong but octopus.”
Cameron: “I also kind of want to see the octopus go down the Pyramid like one of those sticky toys.”
Jim: “…Actually, can I retcon and turn into the octopus instead?”
Jason: “…Fuck it, yes.”)
Roils of soft, wet flesh erupt under Jalut’s grip, shattering the chains and pouring down the sides of the building. Jalut jerks back in shock. Razor-tipped suckers lash to the metal below them, then lunge toward the gargoyle.
(Jason: “Yeah, Jalut decides this isn’t worth his fucking time right now and leaves.”)
Jalut throws himself off the building, wings snapping like sails. Tentacles snatch the air after him as he circles the building once, then banks off into the night.
Perched on the Pyramid like a Christmas tree star, Octopus-Anstis swells and writhes momentarily in triumph. His plate-sized eyes swivel around, deciding what to do next.
(Chris: “You need one of those long lines of silk baby spiders use to drift around.”
Chris: “Yes, you need to balloon your way down.”
Jason: “Right, because he has no other way of flying.”
Jim: “I kind of want to let myself fall down cause I want to see the look on Bell’s face when I go past his window!”
Jason: “Bell is working at his desk, looks up, sees a giant octopus fly past his window…then goes right back to writing.”
Chris: “He’s all, ‘That’s city business, it’s Rabenholz’s problem now.’”)
Anstis peers down at the drop, considering, but decides it isn’t worth it. He carefully disengages himself from the tip of the Pyramid, sliding and suckering his way down the building. Once he’s descended to a level below the rooftops of the surrounding skyline, he transforms into a parrot and soars away.
SIR FRANCIS DRAKE HOTEL
Rabenholz and Scout stand in silence on the small balcony of the suite, watching the city and waiting for Anstis to arrive.
(Chris: “I look for a parrot.”
Jason: “A parrot shows up.”
Chris: “Oh good—”
Jason: “No, it’s a different parrot.”
Me: “…OH!! It’s the Fuck-Off Parrot!!!”
Jim: “……NEMESIS NUMBER TWO!!!!!”)
They watch, puzzled, as a lone cherry-headed conure lands on the balcony, chews experimentally at some of the potted plants, then flies off squawking. Moments later, a blue and gold macaw descends from the night, lands on the tile, then transforms into Anstis.
Anstis smooths his coat and bows. “My apologies for the delay. Night’s been a right trip up the windward passage.”
“I hear that’s going around,” Rabenholz replies. “Cantor, as you might expect, is being difficult.”
“You went to see him?” Anstis asks.
“Yes. I had hoped to smooth over the events of last night.”
“I assume it didn’t end well.”
Rabenholz turns to stare out at the city. “Actually, he seemed profoundly disinterested, which I am entirely fine with.”
Anstis nods grimly. “Yes, disinterest be better than the alternative.”
“I could not agree more.” Rabenholz gestures everyone back inside.
The dead bellhop is still sprawled in the chair. Anstis strides to the body and begins examining him with interest. “Do you wish him gone, or put to something else? A guard, perhaps?”
Rabenholz and Scout trade a look. “No that’s alright,” Rabenholz replies. “If you could discretely walk him out of the building.”
Anstis nods and gets to work, pulling various objects of dubious necromantic nature out of his pockets. Rabenholz and Scout watch him distastefully.
Suddenly, in the silence, the ding of the hallway elevator echoes distantly through the front door.
Rabenholz turns toward the door, suspicious. “Ms Scout, could you check on the elevator and make sure we’re not interrupted?”
Scout nods and leaves the suite, Obfuscating the moment she’s through the door. The hallway is empty. She examines it and the elevator a moment then returns to the room.
“What was it?” Rabenholz asks sharply, ignoring Anstis’s frustrated grunts and he tries to heft the stiffening body off the chair and onto the floor.
“I don’t know,” Scout says. “The elevator opened and closed, but I couldn’t see anyone in normal vision.”
Rabenholz tenses, then scans the room carefully. Except for the dead body and the pirate, everything seems normal. Especially the far corner of the room, which is so normal his gaze keeps sliding past it without stopping.
Rabenholz stops, then levitates a chair and hurls it into the corner.
There’s a cry, then a figure appears, collapsed on the ground in the fragments of the chair. Rabenholz sweeps forward, sword already out, kicks the figure onto its back and levels his blade at the throat.
(Me: “You smashed a chair over a five-year-old.”
Chris: “An invisible five year old!”)
Anstis leaps to his feet. “Lord Rabenholz!” He hurries forward and kneels next to the boy, shoving the sword aside. “Noah! Where have you been?”
The tiny Malkavian boy peers up at him, then begins to sob bloody tears. “They went under to try and stop it,” he whispers. “But they won’t. They’ll all come back to eat you.”
Anstis pulls chair fragments off of him. “Who did? Where did they go?”
Noah shakes his head slowly. “Bad, bad place.”
“Do you know where?”
“Can you describe it?”
“I don’t have to.” Noah reaches up, grabbing one of Anstis’s hands.
Instantly, for Anstis, everything goes dark.
A huge cavern spreads before him, a dozen stories tall, dominated by a massive stone temple carved into the back wall. Row upon row of stadium seating are gouged into the rest of the walls, tall as the original coliseum, but the rock is barely visible due to the figures that fill it.
Millions of things. Dark, twisted creatures of all shapes, sizes, and dimensions. Some are clearly werewolves, black fur streaked with gore and worse, but most are unidentifiable misshapen creatures, howling and raving and jabbering in madness. Myriads of eyes blink and scowl among the mass, but they’re all directed down at one thing.
The floor of the cavern is stepped in a series of tiers leading up to the entrance of the temple. Bodies and pieces of bodies lie scattered around. As the vision unfolds, a nebulous form of pure darkness uncoils from the entrance of the temple, spreading across the sacrificial carnage in a black miasma, then coalesces into a familiar form.
The howls of the crowd intensify, forming a sickly reverential chant. Perpenna descends the stairs, arms extended, and approaches a small figure standing before him, almost unnoticed amongst the bodies.
Marcus, swathed in armor so black it swallows the torchlight, stares up at Perpenna. His eyes, normally dominated by large dark irises like pools of living ink, are clouded over into a matte, solid black. As Perpenna approaches, Marcus draws his sword….
…Then plants the tip of it in the ground and kneels before him.
The throbbing cry from a hundred thousand throats rises around them, pulsing like a heartbeat. Perpenna grins wider, lifting his hands high toward the darkness….
…And then the vision ends, melting around Anstis, returning his sight to the hotel room, the scared boy before him, and the curious stares of Rabenholz and Scout.
(Jason: “So, what’s important to ask here, is this a vision of what could happen, or what did?”)
Anstis climbs slowly to his feet. “…Well. That’s unsettling.”
END OF NIGHT