5/31/16

Me: “Wait, are you actually going along with Perpenna, or just going along with it while waiting for a better opportunity in the future to backstab him?”
Chris: “What’s the difference?”

***

AUTHOR’S NOTE:

So this night of gaming was very special, as it was also my birthday! As a special gift, Kara joined us for dinner and hung around as we spent the rest of the evening in the game. She intended to just listen in while doing some work, but it didn’t take long for us to convince her to guest star as Georgia for a couple of scenes:

(Jason: “Kara, you don’t have to, but if you are interested, might I call on you to pinch hit if I need it?”
Kara: “Okay, I guess. Though I don’t have my character sheet or my dice….”
Jason: “That’s fine, you won’t need them.”
Chris: “You do have, like, sixty missed calls from Paul and Rabenholz. Each.”)

***

EVERTON’S MAN CAVE

Rabenholz stands tall in the elegantly-apportioned room, eyeing the man across from him. Relatively short by modern standards, with a Mediterranean complexion and classic Roman nose, wearing a crisp-tailored suit and an amiable smile on his face

Gnaeus Perpenna Vento.

(Chris: “AURA PERCEPTION!”
Jason: *sighs* “Fine, roll it.”
Chris: *rolls* “…Oh! This was actually a useful one! Four successes!”
Jason: “Four successes, okay what does that tell you…. So, he is a vampire. His aura is green, which indicates obsession, with shifting shades of calm and distrustfulness. Occasionally, there are swirling patches of hypnotic color, indicating psychosis. Over this all, the whole aura is slashed with deep black streaks.”)

“Lord Augustus von Rabenholz,” Perpenna says with a sigh, smile widening

“Gnaeus Perpenna Vento.” Rabenholz nods. “At least we meet. May I offer you a seat?”

“Why thank you.” Perpenna settles into the large wingback chair in the center of the room and admires the fire. The flames have returned to a normal orange color, but the unsettling air that their green light cast still seems to linger in the room.  

Rabenholz picks up the decanter of blood and pours out a tumbler. “Would you care for a drink? I’m not sure what it is but it’s quite good.”

Perpenna takes the glass, sniffs it, then smiles and sips. “So it is. Thank you.” He gestures across the room. “I suppose all of this is yours by right of conquest.”

“Yes, though newly discovered.”

“Well, my understanding is the doctor had many secrets. No doubt it will be the work of a lifetime unraveling them all.”

“It’s good to have projects, isnt it?”

“It is, I find. It keeps the blood stirring.” Perpenna sips again, then settles the glass in his lap. “I imagine you’re wondering how it is I’m here, or why.”

Still standing stiffly, Rabenholz nods once. “The thought had crossed my mind.”

“I’ve been watching you for some time, Lord Rabenholz. You’ve taken possession of the city in which I’ve been forced to make my arrangements, after all, and seem to have a bevy of interests scattered about. Concerns in finance, property. Industry.”

“It’s good to be diversified.”

“It is. And how diversified do you imagine you are at this point?”

Rabenholz considers this a moment, then gestures vaguely, pacing measured steps across the small confines of the room. “This is only the beginning.”

Perpenna’s gaze follows him, still smiling. “Ah, but time is an enemy to all things. Even the timeless. What if tomorrow some Camarilla upstart marches into the city and decides it’s his? What if it happens in ten years? Or a hundred?”

“It is inevitable at some point.”

“It is. So how will you resolve such a conundrum with your powerbase still unfocused, unset, and in the presence of so many elders, many considerably more ancient in lineage than even your august self?” Perpenna chuckles and holds up his glass to examine it in the firelight. “Not just me. My wayward childe, for instance, and others he has decided in his ignorance to draw into these events. It’s desperation on his part. He thinks that by filling the city with disparate vampires of power and lineage, each with their own agendas, I will be thwarted.”

“Well, we can see how successful that’s been so far,” Rabenholz says evenly.

“We can indeed.” Perpenna sets his glass down, his amiable smile suddenly predatory. “I will not be thwarted because I cannot be thwarted. Not by any of the powers already here. Surely you know this by now.”

“A good deal of what you’re up to is still a mystery.”

“Then you must understand if much of it must remain so. But I am not an ungenerous patron either. Just ask any of my clients.” Perpenna gestures grandly. “For I retain clients. Worthy clients. Unlike certain others who scatter that term upon the broken, the lost, and the doomed.”

(Me: “Says the man with no army.”)

Instantly Perpenna falls deathly silent. His gaze turns distant and cold, his eyes black, staring into the gulfs between the dimensions as the shadows in the room flicker.

(Me: “…Oh my god, is he glaring at me through the fourth wall!? Cause…that’s terrifying….”)

Rabenholz eyes Perpenna oddly. Finally, after a few moments, the shadows settle and Perpenna smile returns. “My clients are worthy of my name,” he continues smoothly. “You’ve met some, I think, or seen their actions in recent nights. Some are Kindred. Some not. But I reward my clients if they serve me faithfully.” He takes a long sip of blood, smiling at Rabenholz over the top of the glass. “Matters in this city are proceeding to a point, and soon. I need to ensure that certain contingencies are kept up and are accomplished in a way that is befitting. It would hardly do for a lifetime’s work to be marred by petty things and squabbling at the margins.”

Rabenholz meets his gaze, long face expressionless, then nods once. “I could not agree more.”

Perpenna smiles and sets the glass down on the table. “You do strike me as a man who values order. So what I am here to propose to you, Lord Rabenholz, is a clientage of some sorts. Now, I wouldn’t presume to speak of one such as yourself in lowly terms such as ‘client,’ but in my lands it was not uncommon for men of distinction to arrange such things between themselves. One necessarily the superior, but not casting any ill-reputes upon the nature of the other. And I could provide you with a great deal you would be hard-pressed to provide yourself.”

Rabenholz nods. “You have my interest and my attention.”

Perpenna reaches out a hand, palm up. Shadows gather, taking on enough texture and shadow to form an image: Mad King Laertes, ferocious eyes staring about wildly. “You know him, I think,” Perpenna says.

Rabenholz glowers. “Yes, I have been burdened with that. I hope you have not had the displeasure of meeting him.”

“I have also known Laertes in my time, and I know now what he seeks, with his unblinking eyes. And I think you know too.”

“I have an idea.”

Perpenna smiles. “His appearance earlier wasn’t his true form. But he is coming. And soon. But I have greater tricks even than he.” Shadows well up around Perpennas hand, engulfing the image of Laertes before both dissolve back to nothing. “I need only murmur a word and legions will burst into being across the city to guard against a recurrence of this madness,” Perpenna says.

Rabenholz eyes his hand, then the shadows encroaching from the corners of the room. “Impressive.”

“I’m glad you think so.” Perpenna sits back in the chair. “And then there is the city itself. You seek to rule it, that much is obvious. As is your right, by your heritage. A patrician in form if not in name.” He picks up the glass and gestures with it sharply. “It is right that those bred to rule should rule. It is right that those who are kings by blood be kings. It is not right that the servile rise up against their masters. And you have had a trying time these nights, with the servile and the broken attempting to dictate to one who should rule. Half-bred madmen from the south. Sodomites and broken refugees from the east. All scampering about in your shadow, seeking the crumbs from your table and a tale of how they once foiled the great Lord Rabenholz.

Rabenholz steps forward and picks up the decanter to refill the glass. “Yes. I can imagine Mr. Leidesdorff right now.”

Perpenna snorts disdainfully. “You should. even now he hatches his plots and his schemes, like the shallow man he is. Unworthy to lead even the local chapter of an institution such as the Sabbat. But then the Sabbat has fallen on very poor times indeed.” Perpenna rolls his eyes into the darkness, then looks up at Rabenholz with a smile. “What would you say if I offered you the power to chastise every one of your enemies within this area? At your discretion, at your mercy. Kill them, enslave them, bind them to a stake. And let the world gaze upon them, this time forever. Set them free with a wave of your hand and be renowned for all time for your mercy.”

Rabenholz sets the decanter down carefully. “I would ask what the condition was.”

“Service, of course, to the greater power.”

“Power deserves respect.”

“It does. It is also owed obedience.” Perpenna takes a long sip, still staring up at Rabenholz. “The Ventrue know this. So do the Lasombra. Make no mistake, I will rule. Not this city, not this empty country, but all that I survey. This is not idle boasting, this is fact. Unquenchable and unconquerable. I offer you a position within the greatest empire that shall ever be known.” Another sip. “Or you may remain in your city, with a fiddle, and wait for the flames.”

Silence falls. Rabenholz scans the room, gaze lingering on the fire. “Perhaps you can be more specific in how I might render service,” he says finally.

Perpenna smiles and shifts in his chair, sprawling across the leather. “I have made enemies in my nights. Enemies who would seek to deny my right to rule. Some of these I think you know, others you might not. Let it begin with the Shifters that plague this city and its environs. All of them. Or as many as can be acquired. Some even now seek to enter my domain and strike at the heart of the serpent they see within.” He chuckles. “Annihilate the Shifters and all those who assist them. Including some, I think, who have vexed you in nights past. The Greek-Lover. And the Industrialist.”

Rabenholz folds his hands behind his back, still staring into the fire. “My understanding was you had already made an example of the Shifters. I of course don’t bear Mr. Lytton or Mr. Stewart any particular love, but I worry if you are to set an example that might be too small a starting place.”

“I slew many of them, yes, and destroyed the coven within your city, but what I did to the shifters wasn’t an example, not in the right way. Shifters are an emblem of fear to all Kindred. terrifying beasts that haunt the night. What better emblem of a civilized man than to hunt the monster and destroy it.” Perpenna spreads his hands. “These men and their Shifter allies have vexed you, and they will continue to vex you whether you agree to join me or not. The only difference is that I can give you the chance to destroy all your enemies in one swoop, and to rule over this city and all its dependent domains when I have attained that which is my right. For my interests don’t lie on this continent, they lie elsewhere. And once my victory is complete, there will be great tracts of territory open.” Perpenna sets the glass down and leans forward. “So. What say you, Lord Rabenholz?”

Rabenholz stares into the flames a long moment before turning to face him. “So far everything you’ve said is most agreeable.”

(Me: “Wait, are you actually going along with Perpenna, or just going along with it while waiting for a better opportunity in the future to backstab him?”
Chris: “What’s the difference?”)

Perpenna’s smile widens, glinting with a hint of fang. “I’m glad to hear. As a token of my reason, I would require, of course, a pledge. A blood pledge.” He shrugs in mock-apology. “I am a man who has been betrayed many times by those who were purported to be my clients. I will not be betrayed again.”

Rabenholz nods, then paces slowly again. “That is a reasonable precaution. However, I worry I am faced with paying off that pledge before you are. You have given me a promise of great power in exchange for the example you seek. And I, of course, find that example reasonable. But once pledged to you, how do I know you will hold up your end of the bargain?”

Instantly, Perpenna’s demeanor cools. “You question my ability, or willingness, to see it done?”

“Not at all. I simply suggest you might offer a small offering in advance.”

“And what is that?”

“A small amount of Marcus Sertorius’s blood.”

Perpenna eyes Rabenholz a long moment, face unreadable. “What have you in mind to do with that?”

“It will curry favor with Mr. Bell.” Rabenholz gestures vaguely. “I do not know what you intend to do with him once you ascend, but—”

“I intend to do a great many things with Marcus Sertorius,” Perpenna says sharply. Shadows around him flicker again.

Rabenholz meets his gaze evenly. “I assure you, my use will not impair any of those.”

Perpenna stares at him appraisingly. “You are aware of course, that if it does, there will be consequences.”

Rabenholz nods. “Of course, I would expect no less.”

Still eyeing him, Perpenna reaches into his suit jacket and takes out a small vial filled with dark liquid. He hands it to Rabenholz, who unstoppers it, dabs in a finger, and tastes.

(Chris: “…Nine successes!”
Jason: “Okay, so, you learn basically everything there is to know. The blood you are tasting belongs to Marcus Sertorius, childe of Gnaeus Perpenna Vento. Who had no sire.”
Everyone: “…Whaaaaat?
Me: “Wait, if you embrace yourself, does that count as not having a sire, or…?”
Jason: *takes a slow, dramatic sip of his drink*)

Rabenholz nods in acceptance, then tucks the vial away under his cloak and lowers himself into a kneel.

Perpenna smiles and stands from the chair. He strides forward slowly, practically savoring each step, then reaches out to take Rabenholz’s hand. A blade of raw darkness and infinite thinness materializes in Perpenna’s grip and he slides it slowly across Rabenholz’s palm. Vitae wells up slowly in its wake. Perpenna smiles and places his hand gently over it.

“Now. Augustus von Rabenholz, Lord of San Francisco. Swear your service, your clientage, and your loyalty to Gnaeus Perpenna Vento.”

At his words, the vitae on Rabenholz’s palm quivers, pulsating like a heartbeat but to some unnatural rhythm. Rabenholz ignores it, looking up into Perpenna’s eyes. “I swear.”

Perpenna grins and clasps his hand tight over Rabenholz’s, tight enough to shatter bone in a mortal hand. The pulsing increases, quivering like something dying, then fades. A strange stillness spreads up his arm. After a moment, Perpenna releases the hand and Rabenholz stares at his palm. The vitae is gone, as is the cut, without him having to heal it, and the unfamiliar sense of stillness lingers in his flesh. Briefly, he evokes thoughts of stabbing Perpenna in the back, but there’s no instinctive blood-bond backlash to the betrayal. Still, something deep inside lingers, as if waiting….

Perpenna releases him and steps back. “Lord Augustus von Rabenholz, client of Gnaeus Perpenna Vento, Lord of the Earth and ruler of all he surveys. Rise now and do the bidding of thy patron.”

Rabenholz closes his fist and stands. “Yes, my master.”

Perpenna’s grin widens, taking on a feral edge.

(Chris: “What does his aura look like now?”
Jason: “Megalomania, whatever that color is. Being as comfortable as you are with the Ventrue and the Tremere, you are very familiar with that color.”)

Rabenholz glances down to the staked woman on the floor, the one that fell from the circle inscribed on the ceiling. “Who is she, may I ask?”

Perpenna gazes down disdainfully. “A nobody. A former servant of mine, now lost and abandoned. She called herself, I believe, the Sheriff?”

(Everyone: “OOOOOOH!!!”)

Perpenna shrugs. “I had purposes for her, she was not equal to them. I think I shall make an example of her as well.”

“Would you stay that example awhile? I should like to have her as a servant for the evening. Most of my staff is…brittle.”

Perpenna’s smile takes on an entirely new edge. A hungry one “Certainly. Take her. In fact, I’ll do you one better….”

He reaches down and picks up the Sheriff one-handed. With his other hand, he tears the stake out. Instantly she explodes to life in a full-out frenzy, clawing and snarling at the air. Perpenna holds her at arm’s length, effortlessly ignoring her struggles, then grabs her chin and wrenches her head around to meet his eye. Instantly, the frenzy quiets and she stares back.

Go with this man,” Perpenna hisses at her, “And work my bidding through his commands.” He throws her to the ground at Rabenholz’s feet. “I trust you shall have no further trouble,” he says to Rabenholz, tone amiable once again. “Though you may need to feed it before long.”

Rabenholz watches as the woman climbs slowly and painfully to her feet. “Of course.”

Perpenna turns and smiles at him once again. “I must go. Let me know if you require any more assistance in your tasks.”

“How shall I contact you?”

Shadows slither forward from the corners of the room, climbing Perpenna’s like vines on a trunk. “Seek me, and I shall know,” he says as the darkness rises up and engulfs him. In the next instant the shadows crash back and he’s gone.

Rabenholz eyes the Sheriff again. She stands in a corner by the mantle, arms clasped around her, avoiding his gaze. He strides to the chair and side-table, picking up Perpenna’s unfinished glass of blood. Staring into the distance, he slowly finishes the rest.

(Chris: “Oh, Gussie. What have you gotten yourself into….”)

#

ESTEBAN’S BAR, SUNSET DISTRICT

Gavril arrives at Esteban’s bar and announces he’s here to meet the Baron. The guards eye him a moment, then show him inside up to Esteban’s balcony.

Gavril walks up to the table briskly, a small package tucked under his arm, and bows respectfully.

Esteban nods to him. “Margrave Tsaratsovoshki. It has been some time, I think, since you visited the Sunset. Thank you for sending word of your arrival, though I was not expecting you so soon. Reports are there is midnight construction on Skyline Boulevard leaving Pacifica.”

Gavril smirks. “I did not arrive by car.”

Esteban returns the smile thinly. “Yes, I have heard of your…mount.”

“I hope you don’t mind, I left her outside. You have my assurance she will not disturb your patrons.”

Esteban glances at one of his men lurking in the corner, who shrugs. “Surely her presence is disturbing enough.”

“She will not be seen,” Gavril replies.

Esteban eyes him a moment, then exhales slowly. “Indeed. What is this you have brought, Margrave?”

“A gift, for you.” Gavril places the package gently on the table. Esteban unwraps the plain brown paper, revealing a cigar case made of carved, inlaid bone.

Esteban smiles, much more warmly. “How thoughtful.” He opens it, revealing a line of cigars already inside, each sealed with a ring marked Hecho en Cuba. “Incredibly thoughtful, thank you. A man even in our position must enjoy certain pleasures, you understand. May I offer you one?”

“Thank you, da.” Gavril takes a cigar from the box. One of Esteban’s men steps forward, clippers and a lighter already ready.

Esteban gestures Gavril to a seat as he selects one himself. “So, señor. Why have you come to my humble abode?”

Gavril pulls at his cigar a moment, watching the burn spread slowly across the leaves. “These are trying times.”

“They are.” Esteban lights his own cigar and sits back. “Things have not gone well for the Camarilla who rule in this city. Just as poorly, I think, as your former Sabbat master. Andre.” Esteban tsks. “Torn to pieces by Camarillan upstarts, very sad. Though I don’t imagine everyone in the south mourned his passing.” Esteban smiles conspiratorially.

Gavril returns the smile. “There is also word of threats to the north. How much stock do you put in such rumors?”

Esteban nods slowly. “I don’t put stock in any rumors, what I do put stock in is reports. And I have some. The north bay crawls with things that should not be.”

“Lupines?”

Esteban shakes his head. “I do not speak of werewolves. Werewolves, disgusting and violent as they are, have been my neighbors for quite sometime, in the park. For many years they lived there, arriving not long after the park was built. There are some who say McLaren was kinsmen to these werewolves.”

(Jim: “McLaren?”)

John McLaren,” Esteban continues, “The man who built these parks. Golden Gate, Buena Vista, and the one that shares his name. There are some who say it was the wolves who insisted he do so, that they needed a place to hide in the heart of the city. They were convinced that this city, alone among the others, would not be ruled by us.” Esteban smiles again. “But now the werewolves are gone and stranger things stalk these nights.”

“Like the dragon.”

Esteban’s smile falters. “Yes, that dragon. I do not know when he arrived. One day he was not there and the next he was. I have only met him once, though I did not know at the time who I was meeting. He was in the form of a man, white as ghost, skin and suit paler than mine, with red focused eyes. He was dismissive of any threats or blandishments I could put upon him, even when I made it very clear who I was. Now I suppose I know why.” Esteban taps ash into the tray on the table. “But he was not violent for a time. He disposed of any who bothered him, but as long as you were smart enough not to go into the park, nothing happened. I think the werewolves were more afraid of him than I was.” He looks up with a smile. “But now the dragon seems to be missing too.”

Esteban shifts in his chair and gestures for one of his men to bring his tequila. “Is that why you have come, to catch up on the gossip of your neighbors? Why does a member of good standing of the Sabbat come all the way to the Sunset to speak with me?”

“I come seeking Thomas Lytton,” Gavril says. “I hear you know something of him.”

“Lytton, yes. I have met him many times. He has been here, sometimes with strange company. You should know, he is under the protection of the Priscus.”

“But the Priscus has not been seen in some nights either.”

“That is true. But many have banked on that priscus’s death before, and lost.” The flask of blood-soaked tequila is placed in front of Esteban. He lifts it to pour a glass. “Still, I am not Sabbat, so his death or life is nothing to me. Why do you seek Lytton? Is there some town you need destroyed?”

Gavril smirks. “He has made a name for himself as of late. Has brought attention upon him.”

“Ahh. Well, I will warn you, he has maintained a habit of remaining alive all these nights, despite many decisions—on his part and others—that would have otherwise. You should speak with my counterpart, Baron Leeland of Berkeley. They have also had dealings and the last rumors I heard, Lytton was heading east.”

Gavril considers this information, staring out into the shadows. Esteban finishes pouring and offers the glass, but Gavril lifts a hand in polite decline. “I thank you for your advice, and your hospitality, but the night is waning. I must continue what search I can before returning to Pacifica.”

Esteban nods. “Do take care, and thank you for your kind gift. You are welcome in my territory, but note my territory does not run throughout the entire city.”

Gavril stands and bows. “You are most welcome. And should you find yourself heading south, you are welcome in my territory as well, you need only write.”

Esteban lifts the glass to his lips. “Yes, I shall have to come visit this castle of yours. View the tapestries and all.”

“And they shall view you in return.” Gavril smiles knowingly, then bows again. “Good evening, Don Esteban.” With that, he leaves.

#

(Jason: “Colleen! Which shall we start with for you tonight?”
Me: “Hmm….”
Chris: “Yes, shall you be Scout or Lout?”
Me: “…WOW. That…actually works….”)

#

THE ABYSS

My child…” Jim-Jeremiah-Flagg-Jones’s voice whispers in the dark, directly in my mind, “Welcome to the tribulation.

There’s no air in this dimensionless space, but as I open my mouth, somehow the sensation of sound comes out anyway: “What the fuck!?!!

Jone’s voice laughs. “Surely you know who I am and what I serve.

“Well, for being Mr. I-Chase-Vampires-For-Being-Evil-Demons, you seem to be hanging out in the exact place filled with evil demons!”

You cannot hide from the righteous. Hide in the shadows if you will but I shall come to deliver you.”

I twist in the darkness, Vera clutched in my hands. “Why are you here? I thought this would be the one place I could get the fuck away from you!”

I go where the light of the Lord takes me.”

“I’m pretty sure no light touches here,” I mutter.

Jones doesn’t respond. I hesitate, senses scanning the void, then a creeping sensation climbs the back of my neck. With rising dread, I twist to face behind me.

Jones is there, black frock coat drifting on unfelt breezes, grinning like a devil. He doesn’t say anything, but as I watch, he holds out his hands and his entire body begins to glow. The light doesn’t burn, but around us, I sense the unseen forces in the darkness recoil in surprise, then begin circle closer with pointed interest….

(Me: “So…what happens if I do Obten in the Abyss?”
Jason: “You don’t know.”
Jim: “Only one way to find out!”
Me: “…Okay, so Tom doesn’t know this, but I know that whenever Anstis does Necromancy in the Shadowlands, bad shit happens.”
Jim: “But you know nothing about that. Right now, you are Tom Lytton—”
Me: “—And I’m pissed off, so motherfucker, tendrils again!!!”)

Something inside me calls out to those forces, willing the darkness to leap to my command—

(Me: *rolls* “…One success?”
Jason: *looks at dice* “Mmm, no, nooo… Is difficulty nine.”)

—Nothing happens. Abyssal energy boils around me and Jones, brimming with malice and power, ignoring my pleas, rushing in to engulf us both—

Jones pulses with light, bright as a star. I feel the darkness writhe in pain and recede. “I am come to bring light unto the dark!” Jones’s booming voice echos in my mind, “For I am the gate warden of the city on the hill!!

Fuck this. I swing Vera up and fire.

Thundering vibrations roll through my body, but the shots are eerily silent. Shells pound into Jones’s body, gouging holes straight through, but they instantly reform. Jones’s smile doesn’t falter. His light pulses brighter, and my exposed skin starts to burn. “You cannot harm a servant of the Lord….

Instinct kicks in, summoning darkness to protect me from the rising light. Nocturne erupts around me, thicker than any I’ve called before, but I can sense the edges of it evaporating as the light continues to brighten. Panic starts to overwhelm my anger. I bury myself in dark, willing it around me, into me, anything to hold the burning at bay—

(Me: *gasps* “…Oh my god…I know what I need to do.”
Jason: “…In here? Now?”
Me: “I mean, this is a stressful situation, I’m kinda pushed to the limit—”)

Dark settles over me in womb-like protection, its deep cold suddenly soothing. I clutch Vera tightly, waiting for Jones to falter so I can drop the Nocturne and fire again—

—Then Jones is here, inches from me within the darkness, hands around my throat. Instinctively I grab at him, almost dropping Vera. His breath is like death, his eyes coal-red fire, and from their depths I can feel the screams of tortured souls. He pulls me close, yellow teeth bared in a rictus grin. “Do…you…see?

The light rises again, his fingers burning like brands against my throat. I choke and struggle, trying to pry them loose, but it’s like a vise. Panic rises again, but underneath it something new, something alien, surging forth and bringing the darkness with it—

(Me: *leans back in the chair, spreads arms wide* “Shadownova.”
Jim: “…Wait, is that that combo discipline—”
Me: “—That I’ve been writing for TWO YEARS? Fuck YEAH it is!!!”)

—The tide washes over my panic, transforming it into anger, at the dark, at the unseen demons stalking me, but mostly at this man, chasing me across creation with a smug grin like my father’s. I stare into his eyes, anger rising into fury—

From somewhere within, the Abyss explodes.

(Me: “…SIX successes!”
Jason: “Okay. So under normal circumstances, in the room we’re sitting in, a Shadownova of the strength you just deployed would blow everything in the room out of it. Smash the windows, rip the door off, crack the ceiling, and do terrible damage to your kitchen and everything in it.”
Me: “Awesome.”
Jason: “But that’s here. You just pulled a Shadownova in the Abyss. The raw domain of Obtenebration.”
*thoughtful pause*
Jim: “This could go very well, or very poorly.”
Me: “…Por que no los dos?”)

The darkness rips from me, expanding in all directions with unfathomable velocity, warping the space around me warps with its force. Somewhere out in the deep, the malevolent forces withdraw in shock.

But the image burned in my mind is the one right in front of me: Jones’s face, stripped down to the skull in a space of a heartbeat, before exploding out into ten-thousand fragments.

Then the reverb of the shock-wave smashes back on me, and everything fades to pure black.

#

UNDER THE SEA

(Jason: “So, Anstis. You had just had a torpedo fired at you—”
Cameron: “—And it mist.”
Everyone: “ಠ_ಠ)

Anstis’s octopus body is knocked about in the water by the force of the blast and eventually comes to, drifting in the benthic current. He opens his massive eye, scanning the depths. There’s no sign of the Russian submarine, or his own.

(Jim: “I’m going to use Animalism.”
Everyone: “Oh, no….”
Jim: “…Four successes!”
Jason: “Okay, well you’re a thousand feet deep. So guess what you see? Sperm whales approaching through the water—”
Me: “…And you look like a giant squid!!!”)

Anstis floats in the deep, undulating on the current, watching, waiting….

Till every molluscan nerve fires in warning. He jets out of the way just in time to avoid two sperm whales lunging at him from the darkness, mouths open. “Stop!” he gurgles, in Whale.

They whales flip and twist in the darkness, coming back around, but don’t attack again.

Take me to the…(Crap, how do I say ‘submarine’ in Whale?)…large-metal-whale-that-made-the-loud-bang.

The whales circle him once, then head off into the darkness. Anstis follows.

After a few minutes, a dark, rounded shape appears ahead of them in the water. Anstis approaches eagerly, then stops as he sees the conning tower. It’s the Twilight’s Fortune. He looks around. There’s no sign of the Russian sub.

(Jim: “Which…makes me wonder if it was even there at all….”)

Irritated, Anstis lashes out and grabs one of the whales, pulling the struggling mass into his maw while the other bolts off into the darkness. Anstis drinks the whale dry, then releases the carcass. He watches a moment as it sinks slowly into the dark, trailing a thin stream of blood as it falls, then turns back to the submarine.

Flowers is there, standing on the hull, clothes drifting gently in the water column. He grins at Anstis and opens his mouth to speak, but the words echo directly in his head: “Now, Thomas, you shouldnt’a done that. Haven’t you ever read the story of Captain Ahab?

Anstis’s tentacles twist around him. “Don’t believe I have,” he answers back in his mind.

He chased a white whale through the briny deeps, but ‘twas the end of him.”

“Well, it appears I was the end of this one.”

“And what will be the end of you, I wonder. For you see, when a man calls whales to him as you just did, he might attract the attention of something else….”

Anstis’s giant eye swivels to find the dead whale. The carcass has disappeared, but the blood still lingers in the water column.

Blood.

(Jason: “Dun-dun…dun-dun…dun-dun….”)

Far off in the gloom, a new shape slides through the darkness at the barest edge of perception, a form made of muscle, and blade.

Flowers laughs triumphantly. Anstis twists and grabs at him, but Flowers disappears, leaving Anstis clutching the dead, bloated body of another member of the crew.

The shape in the dark circles closer. It clearly has the angles and speed of a shark, but as it gets closer it’s clear it’s no normal shark. Large as the whale Anstis just killed, almost half the length of the sub itself, a monster from prehistory as terrifying as anything supernatural.

Megalodon.

It passes the sub, one massive black eye rolling to stare at Anstis, and the wake from its tail is almost enough to knock him off the hull. Anstis drops the body and clings to the conning tower as the shark circles around in the darkness. He gropes at the entry hatch but it’s stuck tight, even for the strength of his tentacles. After a few moments of useless tugging, he glances at the shark again.

A massive maw, wider than him, is lunging forward from the darkness. Anstis drops into mist-form moments before the jaws snap shut around him. Teeth screech against the hull of the ship and the tail beats powerfully in the current, forcing the Twilight sideways through the water. The shark releases the boat and circles away, disappearing with uncanny speed into the darkness, but lingering at the edge of vision, poised for another attack….

Still in mist-form, Anstis shoots up to the surface, diffusing from the water to hover just over the waves. Water and night extend in all directions, but a single light bobs over the sea in the near distance. He heads toward it. It’s a fishing trawler, and as he circles he finds that most of the crew are asleep with just one man in the cabin on watch.

Anstis finds a secluded space on the aft deck to land and transform back into pirate. He clears away some nets, exposing the wood deck, and traces out a teleportation circle from a mixture of vitae and fish grime. As he steps in, he braces himself for the blood and death in the bowels of his ship, then activates it—

—And arrives in a bright, clean teleportation chamber.

He stares around. There’s no viscera, no stench, nothing but the normal grime and oil of the pipes. Frowning, he opens the hatch and climbs up to the main deck.

Everything is normal. Crewmen—zombies and mindless ghouls alike—shamble past him, intent on their jobs, and the machinery around hums with purpose. Anstis watches them a few minutes, then goes to locate Liam, eventually finding him asleep in his cabin.

“Mr. Liam!” Anstis barks as he enters. “Report!”

Liam jerks awake, barely missing banging his head on the bulkhead. “Sir! Uh, all’s well, sir. Ship is in cruising status.”

“Anything unusual these past few nights?”

Liam stares at him a moment. “This is a ship crewed by the undead, waiting in the waters for you to command it from the far side of the planet. What counts as ‘unusual’ again, sir?”

Anstis frowns as he stares at Liam’s face, mind’s eye envisioning it as last he saw it: dismembered and half-buried in a charnel house pyre. His gaze slides to the middle distance. “That be a good question….”

#

BLACK SPIRAL HIVE

Dug tenses awkwardly as Paul hugs him. “Where are your enemies, Master? I shall subdue them, with this!” He pries one arm out from the hug and holds up his DVD box of Up.

Paul releases him. “Why did you bring that. And also, why are you here? Did Georgia send you?”

“I sensed Master was in trouble, Master, so I came. Through the rock.” Dug hesitates, tail and wings drooping. “I do not know where Second Master is, Master.”

Paul stares at him a moment, then digs out his phone and tries calling Georgia.

#

(Jason: “So, Georgia. I’d like to explain briefly what the last few nights have been for you.”
Kara: “Okay….”
Jason: “Dr. von Natsi has taken you to the mage city of Horizon. It’s…well, it’s something of a cross between Gondor, Hogwarts, Dalaran, and Zootopia.”
Me: “Does it have the Dalaran theme music? Cause it does in my mind.”
Jason: “It’s a giant, vaguely medieval city located in a shard realm of roughly Gallifreyan proportions, if you know Dr. Who. There are nine districts and each of those slices is dedicated to one of the nine traditions of magic. Effectively it is one of the most ludicrously awesome and wondrous place you could ever imagine.”
Kara: “Cool.”
Jason: “For the last few days you’ve been there doing things the likes of which I will not be describing here because I have not come up with them at this time. But presumably you’re at least somewhat concerned with what’s been going on back at home, even though Dr. von Natsi has been showing off the fruits of Science to all and sundry who will listen to him, which you have discovered is a depressingly small number of people.”
Kara: “So…I haven’t been killed, or anything?”
Jason: “Well, there has been talk in the higher mage circles about killing you, some of them in the most academic and polite manner possible. Others in the city are filled with wrath and violence, will run up to you and tell you that you are a terrible abomination that must be destroyed immediately, then leave without doing anything. Others seem perturbed by your existence but continue to ask questions, the nature of which you don’t quite understand the purpose of. You’ve been asked to demonstrate magical aptitudes again and again and again, both hedge magic and proper magic.”
Kara: “So I’m getting very good at magic, is what you’re saying.”
Jason: “And while your blood magic still works perfectly well, it feels so limited now. It’s as if you were playing Civilization in a tiny corner of Italy, and suddenly the game map expanded to encompass the entire solar system.”
Kara: “Wow. That UI sounds terrible.”
Jason: “As well as practicing magic, you’ve also been exploring the city. One night you visited a Cult of Ecstasy rave. Boy was that an experience.”
Me: *gasps* “Did she get laid?!”
Jason: “…She’s not sure.”
Chris: “You know she can only lubricate with blood.”
Kara: “Well, regular vampires can only lubricate with blood. I control matter.”
Me: “So you used your mage powers to turn blood into silicone lube?”)

#

HORIZON

Evening has fallen in this quadrant of the mage city. Georgia is deep at work in the rented lab space she shares with Dr. von Natsi. Presently she’s working on a project studying the etheric mechanics of salad spinners. She’s holding the plastic basket up against the light, frowning thoughtfully, when across the lab, the interdimensional phone rings. She puts down her tools and goes to answer.

Georgia Johnson,” a gentle robotic voice greets her,  “A call is coming through for you from Earth Prime. Do you wish to answer the call, ignore the call, trace the call, deliver death-magic to the caller—

“How did you know it was me?” Georgia asks.

Who else would it be?” the voice replies calmly.

Georgia hesitates. “Good point. Who’s calling me?”

“Uncertain. Interference from his location is blocking ID-tracing.”

Georgia considers this a long moment. “…Is he handsome?”

(Jason: “…Is he? What’s your Appearance?”
Chris: “Um…two dots.”
Jim: “Really, that’s it?”
Chris: “Yeah, well, I made him so long ago when we had so few points and I needed them for other things. Like Charisma.”)

The voice has no response to this, so Georgia shrugs and accepts the call.

“Georgia?” Paul’s voice greets her.

“Oh Paul!” She smiles and settles onto a stool. “I definitely think you’re handsome.”

“Georgia! WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN!?!”

“Where have you been?”

“Three nights ago I called you, and you said you were on your way with help. Since then, I haven’t heard anything! Meanwhile I have been trying to rescue the werewolf cub, which by the way was under your protection and has been abducted by a Spiral Dancer who destroyed my house and who has now also captured Sophia and Claude and basically everyone who was supporting us, leaving me with nothing!!! Bell will not help me, Rabenholz will not help me, von Natsi will not help me, and Tom is an idiot, so where the fuck is the one person I thought out of all these people would always have my back?!?!!

Silence falls. Georgia stares into space a long moment, phone clutched against her ear. “So, I’m in a different dimension right now….”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, I don’t really know how to get between dimensions, so…yes. Yes it is.”

Paul sighs. “Let me see if I can fix that.”

(Chris: “I Summon Georgia.”)

The phone suddenly beeps at Georgia. She looks at the screen, where a text message has just appeared: “You have been summoned by a blood-sucking extra-dimensional horror. Do you wish to accept?

“Hold on just a minute, Paul,” Georgia says, then puts him on hold while she goes to check if Dr. von Natsi is in the lab.

Since they rented the space, von Natsi has only been around Horizon sporadically, usually just long enough to pick up pieces necessary for the golem project. Fortunately, today is one of the days he’s stopped by and she finds him in the office having an argument with a potted plant.

Georgia knocks lightly against the doorframe. “Uh, Doctor? Sorry to interrupt—”

von Natsi whirls toward her, gesturing angrily at the plant. “ZIS IS INTOLERABLE!! I am trying to explain complicated scientific theories und zis man vill not listen!!!”

“Well…I think it’s possible he hasn’t been watered enough.”

von Natsi glares at her over his goggles. “He is not a potted plant, he has assumed the form of a potted plant in an attempt to insult me by indicating I am crazy enough to be having conversations with decorative foliage!!!” von Natsi grabs one of the leaves and slaps it dramatically. “Mein herr, I demand satisfaction!!!” He waits expectantly, then peers more closely at the leaf in his hand, adjusts his goggles, hesitates, and straightens. “…Okay, maybe zis is actually a potted plant.” He dumps the plant in a drawer and turns to her. “Vat can I do for you, Ms. Johnson?”

“I was wondering if there is a way for me to get from here to San Francisco and back,” Georgia replies.

von Natsi gestures dismissively. “Oh, it is quite easy, as long as you are trained.”

“I’m not trained yet.”

He hesitates. “Vell, in that case, it is not…literally impossible….”

Georgia droops. “…But close,” she finishes for him. “I only ask because our friend Paul Stewart needs help.”

von Natsi stares. “Paul Stewart needs help? But I gave him my best death-ray!”

She holds up the phone. “Do you want to talk to him?”

von Natsi accepts it. “Mr. Stewart! Vat can I do for you? How is ze deathray?”

“Doctor,” Paul says seriously. “I’m sorry, your deathray is gone.”

von Natsi sits down heavily.

“It turns out the trigger doesn’t work,” Paul continues, “And when you have a bunch of hellbeasts descending on you there isn’t any way to fire it. I had to leave it behind when I was running for my life.”

“One moment, Mr. Stewart, one moment….” von Natsi reaches a shaking hand under his labcoat and pulls out a small bottle of schnapps. He slowly unscrews it and pours it out on the floor.

“Doctor?” Paul’s voice calls from the phone. “Are you still there??”

“Ja.” von Natsi sighs. “Ja, I apologize, Mr. Stewart, zat vas a design flaw. So…how are things othervise?”

“Well I woke up on a mountain of corpses filled with giant maggots and things have gotten worse from there.”

Georgia leans over to shout into the phone, “Paul! I remember this from when I was alive, you have to wash the dishes sometimes otherwise they’ll attract bugs.”

There’s a very long pause. Then Paul hangs up.

von Natsi stares at the screen. “Hello?”

#

BLACK SPIRAL HIVE

Dug watches as Paul slowly lowers his phone, face blank. “Master?” he asks nervously.

Paul stares into the darkness of the tunnels a long moment. “Ms. Johnson is dead to us.”

Dug draws himself up, wings flaring. “We shall avenge her, Master! We shall slay her enemies!!”

“Yes,” Paul mutters. “We shall.”

(Chris: “…I Summon the Spiral Dancer again.”)

Paul casts the Summons, then continues to stare off into space, awaiting his fate….

…When suddenly Georgia appears next to him.

“Second Master!” Dug cries happily.

Georgia tucks her interdimensional phone away and fusses with her robes. “Hi! Sorry about that, I figured it out, I just had to accept your text.”

Paul turns to stare at her a long moment. “I hope your life has been going well in…wherever you’ve been.” He looks over her new clothes, embroidered in various arcane symbols, then takes a slow breath. “Anyway, somewhere inside this series of tunnels is Sophia and Stormwalker and Samir and Claude and this cajun you haven’t met and the werewolf cub who is in danger of being sacrificed at some point tonight.”

Georgia claps once. “Well, I’ll give it a shot, but I can’t stay too long. I’ve been helping Dr. von Natsi with the golem project.”

Paul glares at her. “Georgia, this is the end of the world we may be talking about.”

“I know, but this is the end of Dr. von Natsi’s research grant.”

Dug sidles forward. “Second Master!  I have brought the implements of slaying!” He holds up the DVD.

“Aww, it’s good to see you too Dug.” Georgia hugs him. Dug looks confused a moment, then his pointed tail slowly begins to wag.

Paul sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. “So…Dug. We’ve been talking about this. Usually when people disagree, we don’t try to kill each other. Most disputes can be resolved peacefully. This is why we show Up, so people understand the value of each other, and friendship, and compassion.”

Dug nods enthusiastically. “Yes, Master!”

Paul gestures down the dark maw of the tunnel ahead. “There are some things in this hive that don’t understand those things. Things that wish us dead. Really and truly dead.”

Dug frowns. “What should I do, Master?”

“Don’t kill them if you don’t have to, but if you have to kill them to save yourself, or Georgia or myself, that is okay.”

Dug cocks his head, considering this. “You…wish me to kill them, Master?”

“Only in self defense,” Georgia adds.

Dug glances between them. “I’m confused, Masters.”

“They’re going to try very hard to kill us,” Georgia continues.

“And they’re going to refuse to watch Up,” Paul says.

At this, Dug’s face falls, stony and grim. “I understand, Master….” he rumbles.

Paul pats his arm and turns to scan the tunnel. “Hopefully it won’t come to that, hopefully we can find our friends and get out—”

Paul stops. The Spiral Dancer is here, far down the tunnel. And four other werewolves are with her.

Dug and Georgia fall silent. After a moment, Paul steps forward. “You kidnapped friends of mine,” he says, pouring as much Presence into his words as possible, “I’d like you to return them.”

The Spiral Dancer sneers. “Fool. Your guts will taste good.”

Paul holds up his hands. “If you let my friends go, all my friends, I will allow you to take me prisoner.”

The sneer morphs into a snarl. “I will take what I want from you!” She barks a command to the other wolves, all with the same twisted hyena face as hers. They howl and lunge forward, speeding down the tunnel toward Paul—

Sand suddenly erupts from the ground, rising in front of Paul in a thick silica cloud. The werewolves stop, surprised.

Georgia steps forward and gestures. The silica coalesces and hardens into a lattice of tempered glass across the entire tunnel. “See,” she says cheerfully, “This way we can still see and talk to each other.”

The wolves glance at each other, then lunge at the fence with claws bared. Snarls and howls fill the tunnel and pieces of lattice shatter one by one under the onslaught. One wolf forces his thick muzzle through, growling and snapping—

Paul punches it.

(Jason: *rolls* *stares* “…I can’t believe it, you actually did one level of bashing damage to a werewolf….”)

The wolf pulls back with a yelp. “See?” Paul shouts. “That’s why I wanted to talk about this rationally!”

The injured wolf glares, then lunges forward again—

Dug rushes suddenly forward, crashing through the remains of the lattice, tackling the werewolf to the ground. Flesh and stone grind and slash against each other. Another wolf comes forward, shoving his way through the opening in the glass, ignoring the shards tearing at its skin, reaching toward Paul—

—Then suddenly the wolf spasms, screaming and flailing against the air. An acrid, burning scent fills the tunnel as a bloody concoction of spittle wells from its mouth, nose, and eyes.

Paul stares. “Wha…?” he mutters, slowly turning toward Georgia.

Georgia smiles back amiably before noticing the confusion on Paul’s face. “Oh! I turned his bones to silver.”

The werewolf falls to the ground, spasming and frothing, then finally falls still. The remaining Spiral Dancers stop, staring at it in shock.

“So,” Paul says, “Anyone want to try negotiating again?”

The wolves exchange a glance, then lunge forward as one, bursting through the rest of the glass. This time, though, their attack is aimed at Georgia.

A chunk of ground under her feet suddenly disappears. Georgia drops into the pit, robes billowing around her, then disappears from sight as the ground suddenly reforms over her head. The wolves stop in confusion as a breeze of displaced air washes over them.

(Jim: “So, they can’t breathe right now?”
Kara: “No, I only turned the stone underneath me into nitrogen.”
Jim: “Which should be a lot of nitrogen.”
Jason: “It’s not an exact ratio. There’s no conservation of mass here. Cabbages appear somewhere to make up the difference.”
Kara: “Cabbages rain down from the ceiling!”
Jason: “…In fact, you know what, yes!”)

The wolves continue to hesitate as leafy green spheres plop gently around them. After a moment they turn to Paul, who shakes his head sadly. “Oh, you’ve done it now. You don’t want to be here when she does the rest.”

They stare at him a long moment, then suddenly tense, turn, and run, disappearing back into the dark.

Paul smirks, then, memory of this movie suddenly coming to mind, he slowly turns to see what’s behind him.

A massive mechanical contraption looms in the tunnel, shaped like a man, covered in an armory’s worth of shielding and blades. There’s a slow hiss of steam, then the helmet of the suit opens.

Revealing Dr. von Natsi.

“Mr. Stewart! Vat is—” He looks around the tunnel, then emits a high-pitched shriek and leaps back. “MEIN GOTT! VAT HAPPENED HERE!?!”

Paul looks down. Dr. von Natsi’s armored death-suit is currently dancing away from the cabbages piled on the floor.

Behind them, the ground opens again and Georgia climbs back up into the tunnel. “Oh, hello Doctor! Don’t worry about those, they’re mine.” As she steps out, the hole in the floor behind her refills and the cabbages disappear one by one.

Paul glares at Dr. von Natsi a long moment. “Doctor,” he greets him tersely. “I don’t know whether to kiss you or kill you. But…how about a hug.” Paul ambles up and wraps the suit in a hug.

Von Natsi freezes. “Zis is most improper!”

“…Master?” a weak voice interrupts. They all look down. Dug is still sprawled out on the ground where he was last grappling with the werewolf. Deep rends rimmed with vitae slash his flesh and the spires of his wings droop like a broken umbrella.

Paul rushes over to kneel next to him. “Dug! Can you heal?”

Dug nods once, ugly face twisting in pain. “Yes…Master….” His eyes slowly focus on Paul. “Master…did I slay the enemy properly Master?”

“Yes Dug,” Paul murmurs.

“Thank you, Master.” Dug relaxes against the stone. “May I sleep, Master?”

“Yes Dug.”

“Thank you Master….” Dug closes his eyes. Slowly, his body melds with the earth and he sinks into the ground, disappearing from sight.

Paul sits back on his heels, staring off into the tunnel’s darkness, silent once again. “I swear that man has a heart of gold.”

“Well if he does,” Georgia says, “I didn’t do it.”

Paul glares at her and climbs back to his feet. “Doctor. Many of our friends are trapped in this maze. If we find them, do you have a way to get us out of here? Maybe take us back to your tower?”

von Natsi hesitates, armored gloves scratching at his head. “Ehrm…vell zere is a problem vith ze tower. It is being prepared for ze unveiling of my special project.”

Georgia jumps up and down, clapping excitedly. “The golem!”

“Ja! I have made considerable progress focusing ze etheric energies, but I cannot risk letting anyone disturb my instruments right now. However, ven ze project is complete, I vill be very happy to show you ze results. I can almost guarantee zat you vill be fine.” von Natsi beams.

Paul stares. “That’s…kind of reassuring. Okay, well, if not the tower, is there anything to get our people out of there?”

von Natsi frowns. “How many people are you speaking of?”

“Sophia, the werewolf cub, a few others.”

von Natsi tilts his head back, muttering calculations under his breath, then turns back to Paul with a frown. “Vith ze transportation devices on mein suit, I could perhaps teleport one or two, but for more than zat I vould need an entire etheric translocator. And I do not simply carry around etheric translocators in mein pocket!”

Paul stares at him a long moment. “No, of course not,” he mutters. “Just useless deathrays.”

von Natsi glares back through his goggles. “Look, if you had simply used the deathray I gave you in ze proper manner, zis would not have happened!”

“Do you think you could have told me ahead of time that pulling the trigger wasn’t the way to activate it?!” Paul shouts.

“It’s a death ray, vat vould you expect it to do?”

“Well, inflict death on people in the form of a ray, is one thing—”

von Natsi gasps and steps back, armored hands flying to his face. “VAT SORT OF DEATHRAYS HAVE YOU BEEN USING?!”

(Me: “Fun ones.”)

After a moment, von Natsi sighs and starts tapping at a control panel in the arm of his suit. “Mr. Stewart, I am sorry. I vill remove you and Ms. Johnson, but ze rest of your friends are on their own.”

Paul watches him a moment. “Okay, but before you do, I think you should know, I think I saw Professor Snodgrass in there.”

von Natsi stops and looks up. “Vat did you say?”

Paul shrugs. “He was talking to someone. I was trying to sneak away so I didn’t get a goo—”

“ZAT FRAUDULENT FOOL!!!” Metal clanks as von Natsi paces back and forth in the tunnel. “Vere did you see him? Vat vas he doing? DID HE MENTION ME SPECIFICALLY?!”

Paul forces a shrug again. “He was with the rest of my friends—”

von Natsi steps forward and grabs his shoulders. “Mr. Stewart, zis of the utmost importance! One mistake could spell disaster for all of us!” He holds up his arm to reveal the control panel, now displaying a map of the tunnels. “I need you to point to the exact location of Professor Snodgrass.”

“Um….” Paul trades a look with Georgia, then peers at the screen. “Well, I think it was somewhere in this red-zone here—”

The instant Paul’s finger touches the map, he disappears.

#

TOM’S LOCATION

I wake to rain on my face.

I’m in a narrow alley, dark and cold, with a steady drizzle pouring from the narrow sky and off the buildings overhead. Groaning, I hoist my way up one of the crumbling walls as I stand. Unidentifiable garbage and stinking filth is piled in the shadows, and at the end of the alley I can hear noises echoing in the street. Not cars, but horses.

(Jason: “It’s clearly not San Francisco. But wherever it is is pretty bad.”
Kara: “Detroit?”)

I grope at myself. I’m not entirely sure what the hell it was that I did to knock me out of the Abyss, but at least I don’t seem to be damaged, though the rain isn’t doing my leather jacket any favors. Vera, thankfully, is still here, sprawled in the muck next to me. I hoist her carefully across my back and edge to the end of the alley to peer around the corner. A cobblestone street disappears into the darkness in front of me, brick buildings looming four stories high on each side. As I watch, a cart passes slowly by, drawn by a skinny horse and driven by a figure in a heavy cloak, hood pulled low.

Simple, worn wooden signs hang from the buildings just above street level. Across from me is one shaped like the head of a pig, with a mug of beer painted across the front.

I frown. A bar is probably the best place to get information while laying low, but walking in with Vera probably won’t go over well. I poke about the alley till I find a heavy, discarded cloak—only mostly stinky—amongst the trash. I throw it over my shoulders, covering the majority of Vera’s bulk, then hurry quickly across the road and duck inside the building.

Inside, I step into a smoke-filled pub, lit by stained oil lamps, dotted with people hunched over wooden tables. Their clothes are cut in antique styles, but even in the gloom, all are clearly shabby and worn. Most are talking low over their drinks, a few play a dice game in the corner. Very few glance up at me as I come in, and those that do turn quickly away.

I wander up to the bar. The bartender comes over, wiping down the wood with a stained rag. I sit on a stool, awkwardly trying to keep Vera covered on my back. “What do you have to drink?”

The bartender looks me over. “Few things,” he grumbles in a rough English accent. “But we don’t serve what you want.”

“I’ll take what you have.”

He glares suspiciously. “Got something to pay?”

I grope at my pockets, but of course it’s useless. I barely carried cash on me even in the real world. The bartender smirks.

Slowly, I clasp my hands on the bar and lean forward. “So,” I say nonchalantly, “I’m looking for work….”

The bartender rolls his eyes. “What kind of work?”

“I don’t know, I’m a pretty intimidating guy….”

“Ah, that kind of work.” He tosses the rag over his shoulder. “I might know someone. Out back, around the corner, down three doors to the left.”

I nod to him and leave. The rain is still pouring so I hurry to follow his directions, arriving at a large brick manor facing a side-street. Stonework details flank the windows and roofline and gargoyles—actual gargoyles—crouch over the front entry, glaring at me as I walk up the steps. I grasp the bronze ring on the door and knock heavily.

A few moments pass, then an old bald man in a shabby suit opens the door. He looks me over. “Who are you?”

“I’m a man looking for work, and a guy down at…The Boar’s Head said there may be some jobs available here.”

He frowns. “What’s your name?”

“Tom.”

Something passes across his face, a flicker of something, possibly recognition. But before I can ask he’s stepped back and gesturing me inside. “We might have something for you. Come in.”

The man leads me through the foyer. Rich tapestries and furnishings line the walls, but like everything I’ve seen so far, all are threadbare. He opens a large door on the far side of the space and gestures me inside.

My eyes slowly adjust as I step inside into a darkened ballroom. Almost two dozen people are here, gathered in a circle around a brazier, dressed in thick hooded robes, but much nicer than anything I’ve seen so far. They turn to me as I approach. Under the hoods, their faces are obscured by carved masks with exaggerated expressions, like a Greek play. But all of the faces are twisted into a grimace of Tragedy.

A figure at the head of the circle dressed in blood red robes gestures and the heavy door closes behind me. The room is plunged into silence, the only movement the flickering of the flames.

I clear my throat.  “Um, so if I’d known there was going to be an orgy I’d have worn better underwear….”

The figure in red gestures. “Come in,” he says, voice strangely distorted by the mask.

I shift nervously, drifting one hand to rest on Vera’s reassuring metal. “I was told this would be a place where I could find some work?”

“Yes,” the figure sighs, “You will do Great Work here….” He gestures again. As one, the rest of the figures draw long curved knives from under their robes and begin to approach me.

(Me: “…Right, yeah, okay, I hate that phrase now, so fuck this shit—”)

In one movement, I tear the cloak from my shoulders and swing Vera around, levelling her on my hip and gripping her to fire—

Click.

I pull the trigger again. More useless clicks.

The red-robed figure chuckles, a low, rasping sound. “Oooh, I’m sorry, Mr. Lytton.…” he says, then reaches up to remove his mask. As he does, he steps closer toward the brazier, the firelight dancing along thin features I know all too fucking well.

Carlos.

He grins a yellowed, jagged smile at me. “…I’m afraid, Mr. Lytton, that gunpowder hasn’t been invented yet.”

(Me: *stares* “…What? WHAT!?? MOTHERFUCKER—!!!”)

As I stare, the other figures brandish their knives, then all rush me at once.

END OF NIGHT

***

EPILOGUE:

(Me: “…Fucking happy birthday to me….”
Jason: “I told you I got you torment!”
Me: “…Thank you?”)

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