6/23/16

Jason: “Uber is unfortunately not running right now, due to The Apocalypse.
Me: “Not even surge pricing?”

***
PAUL’S LOCATION

Paul awakens in bed. Not his; the mahogany four-post frame and navy-blue silk linens are far beyond his tastes. He sits up to find himself surrounded by a similarly well-appointed room, with wood paneled walls, oil portraits of mustachioed men in uniform, and a phonograph on the table next to him. Carefully, he slides off the silks and goes to open the door, where a tall figure in formal tuxedo is just passing in the hallway outside.

It’s Reginald.

“Sir,” Reginald drawls, holding up a silver tea service. “Will you take tea, sir?”

Paul stares. “Uh, yes please.”

“Very good sir, I shall set it out in the drawing room.” Reginald continues crisply down the hallway. Paul follows. At the end of the hall, a door swings open and both men step inside.

Another wood-lined room greets them, complete with a crackling fireplace and plush leather armchairs. The third wall, though, is clear, showing an unbroken field of stars, sliding slowly along in an endless night.

Unbroken, that is, except for the portly figure in khaki standing in front of it.  

“Professor Snodgrass!” Paul exclaims, stepping forward with hand outstretched. “How good to see you again.”

Snodgrass turns from the stars to eye him through his monocle. “I know you. You’re that…colonial industrialist.” He spits the last words as if they were something vile.

Slowly, Paul lowers his hand. “So, how have things been going?”

“Oh, most capital, ever since I was able to get rid of that teutonic charlatan. But now I seem to have another visitor.” Snodgrass sniffs disdainfully, rippling his mustache. “Most unorthodox.”

“Well I wasn’t really planning on visiting. I was trying to get Dr. von Natsi to help me, then I mentioned your name while he was trying to do mag—science,” Paul says carefully, “…then somehow ended up here.”

Snodgrass’s eyes narrow. Slowly, he takes a step forward, leaning his impressive bulk closer. “To label what that man does ‘science,’” he rumbles, “is so beyond the orthodox it is barely capable of supporting the word.”

“I don’t disagree,” Paul says quickly, “but whatever you call it, right now he’s trying to help me rescue our friends.”

Snodgrass barks a laugh. “He is barely able to rescue himself.”

“Well, actually, right now the problem seems to be that he could rescue himself but he doesn’t have a way to transport anyone else with…him….” Paul slowly trails off as he looks around again, realizing where they are. “Wait, this is your airship, right?”

Snodgrass glares again. “Her Majesty’s ethership, sir! HMES Harumph, God Save the Queen!”

“And…is it armed?”

Snodgrass chest puffs up. “With only the finest guns science can provide! Why, under my grandfather’s care, she once saved an entire colonial regiment from the marauding forces of the entire Zulu army, even with their shamanistic hermetic nonsense.” He points to one of the walls, crowded with paintings and framed photographs. The largest painting shows a frantic scene of burning buildings and scrambling, red-coated men in a barren countryside, while the delicate bladders and sails of the HMES Harumph hang half-visible in the smoke overhead.

Paul stares at it a moment. “Cool, so, hey, speaking of, maybe I can interest you in an opportunity to demonstrate your superiority over Dr. von Natsi?”

Snodgrass snorts and strides across the room to grab a glass of brandy from a side table. “My superiority is beyond doubt. Always has been. Ever since we were in university, on Horizon. He was some…scholarship charity case, a basement tinkerer with the barest spark of talent, while I am a product of the finest of British schools.” Snodgrass gestures imperiously with his glass. “REGINALD!!! Strike up the tune!”

Reginald, still standing politely at attention in the corner, pulls out a kazoo from a pocket, tunes it in one long note, then launches into Rule Britannia.

Snodgrass paces the room, conducting with his glass of brandy. “Bear no confusion, Mr. Stewart, I am Barnabus Chauncy Snodgrass, fourth in a long line of scientists and explorers. My ancestors were out charting the stars for king and country while von Natsi’s were mucking about in furs and mud huts, and no amount of kitchen utensils and farcical golem projects will change that. Questioning my supremacy over such a man would be like questioning the might of Britannia herself, and debasing my formal research to legitimize such a notion would equally laughable.” He pauses to take a sip. “That is quite enough, Reginald, thank you.” The kazoo squeals to a halt.

Paul hesitates in the following silence. “So…you’re not going to help us?”

Snodgrass turns to stare out once again at the passing starscape. “No.”

Paul’s mind races. “Dr. von Natsi’s work really has been impressive—”

Snodgrass snorts again.

“In fact, Professor Lovelace seemed to think—”

Snodgrass suddenly tenses, glass halfway to his mouth. “Victoria? What…what did she say?” he mutters, turning.

Paul hesitates at the sudden change in tone but takes the lead and runs with it. “Well she seemed to think Dr. von Natsi’s achievements had been overshadowing yours for some time—”

The glass in Snodgrass’s hand shatters. Heat rises across his face, blazing red as the soldier’s coats in the painting. He takes a long, slow breath, mustache quivering from the intake of air. Paul tenses, preparing to duck from the imminent explosion—

—Then Snodgrass exhales and deflates like a dying zeppelin. He sets down his glass with a shaking hand and walks to the wall with the painting, taking down a framed sepia photograph hanging next to it. Slowly, he settles into one of the leather chairs with a creak, staring at the image behind the glass.

Paul hesitates, glancing at Reginald, but the butler doesn’t respond. After a few moments, Paul sidles closer and glances at the photo. Three people are in it, two of them clearly-younger versions of Snodgrass and Dr. von Natsi—the former with far less mustache, the latter with only one pair of goggles and eyebrows noticeably unscorched. In between them is a younger but no less elegant Victoria Lovelace. Von Natsi is clearly pontificating about something, a finger raised in gesticulation, and Lovelace is laughing, leaning close to him and resting a hand on his arm for support.

On her other side, Snodgrass smiles woodenly for the camera while his eyes glare daggers at von Natsi.

“…Oh,” Paul mutters.

Snodgrass’s fingers clutch the glass. “Does she really think Siegfried’s work overshadows my own?”

Paul’s mind races to keep up with the ruse. “Well, I’m not entirely sure. But they were insistent on getting von Natsi’s work written up in some magazine…?”

Snodgrass’s hands quiver. “Paradigma? She’s…they’re….” He takes a breath. “…They’re coauthoring?”

Paul shrugs. “I am simply passing along what I heard.”

(Jason: “Chris, Manipulation + Subterfuge.”
Chris: *rolls* “Umm…how about six successes?”
Jason: “…Paul Stewart, Liar to Etherites.”)

Snodgrass stares into space, face cycling through multiple emotions, then slowly stands. He removes his monocle and polishes it carefully.  “Well. Britannia may be beyond the need to prove her worth, but that doesn’t mean she can’t run out the colors on occasion. REGINALD!” He bellows across the room. “STRIKE UP THE BAND AND RAISE THE CANNON!”

“Very good, sir.” Reginald bows and disappears into the hall. Horns echo in the distance and slowly the starfield whirls as the ship starts turning to port. Snodgrass strides back to the wall, re-hangs the picture gently, then turns. “Mr. Stewart!” he barks. “What is that Hun up to? If this mission is to be a success you must give me intelligence!”

Paul struggles to hide his grin. “Well, I may be getting things jumbled up, but…do you know what a Spiral Dancer is?”

#

SUNSET DISTRICT

The neighborhood grows steadily quieter as Gavril and Scout distance themselves from the burning bar. Scout walks stiffly, lost in thought, while Gavril rides serenely on Neshka’s rolling gait. The only sound is the rasp of the szlachta’s leathery feet against the sidewalk, and the occasional rattle as she leans down to nose at passing trash cans.

“So, Ms. Scout,” Gavril says finally. “Or should I say Ms. Bennett. How much do you know of this happening?”

Scout glances behind them. The bar has disappeared beyond the lines of suburban houses, but the glow hangs over them, reflecting off the roiling smoke. “The…fire?”

“No, this.” He gestures to the rest of the sky, still unnervingly matte-black.

“Oh, right, the darkness. I don’t know, I just woke up today and this was like this.” She walks in silence a moment. “Do you know anything?”

“Not yet. I was seeking a Brujah named Thomas Lytton. I hear the Brujah associates with a Gangrel, Thomas Anstis.” He smiles at her. “What do you know of these men?”

Scout frowns as she gathers her thoughts. “From what I understand, Lord Rabenholz had Lytton in his possession for some time, and he’s now escaped and on the loose somewhere. As for the pirate?” She shrugs. “He’s an asshole.”

“Your assistance in locating these men will not go unnoticed,” Gavril says firmly.

“The pirate and I aren’t really on speaking terms at the moment.”

“What has come between you?”

Her gaze turns distant. “He suspects me of something.”

“What sort of suspicions?”

She glares at him. “Things that do not concern the Sabbat.”

Gavril grins. “Everything concerns the Sabbat.”

Scout stops and folds her arms. “From what I understand the Black Hand has agents in the city as well, it should probably be of their concern first.”

“Da.” Gavril grins wider, pulling Neshka around to face her. “Tell me, what has the Camarilla learned of Cantor?”

She eyes him appraisingly a long moment before continuing. “He’s also known as Cantor the White. It’s not so much a description of his moral character as it is a quirk of his. Unlike most of his clan, his skin doesn’t darken with age. He is currently based out of St. Ignatius Church.”

“And yet the mighty Camarilla haven’t ousted him.”

“If you haven’t noticed, the mighty Camarilla are occupied with other things exploding around this city, both figuratively and literally.” Scout pauses, then digs a scrap of paper from a pocket and starts scribbling a note on the back. “Look, I can’t help you with Lytton, but if you’re looking for the pirate, here’s his phone number.”

(Jason: “Ah, shit.”
Jim: “Fortunately Gavril doesn’t have a phone. Because this is exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”)

Gavril accept the note with a bow and pockets it.

Scout bows stiffly back. “If that will be all, Margrave, I have other business I need to attend to this evening, related to this recent…conflagration.” Her eyes dart at the glow behind them.

“What additional business is this?”

She tenses. “I need to see a man a ways south. An Anarch by the name of Doc.”

(Jim: “What’s Doc’s rep in the Sabbat?”
Jason: “‘Stay the Fuck Away.’”)

Gavril nods sagely. “Ah. Is very dangerous kindred. I would not advise speaking to him lightly. What do you hope to get out of this meeting?”

She glances at the fire again, then turns away. “It’s…of a personal nature.”

“Ah.” Gavril shifts in the saddle, grinning. “Those are the most interesting type.”

“I’m sure they are,” she mutters, pulling out her phone to try to summon a car.

(Jason: “Uber is unfortunately not running right now, due to
the Apocalypse.
Me: “Not even surge pricing?”)

Gavril watches as she fiddles and curses at the phone. “You tell me why you go to see Doc,” he says finally, “I will tell you why I want Lytton.

Scout pauses. “Why should I care about this Lytton?”

“You collect information, da?”

She hesitates another moment, then tucks the phone away and meets his gaze. “I’ve heard that the one called Doc has some abilities to help those…bound in ways they no longer wish to be. He is a dangerous man, but sometimes things advance to a point where the risk is worth it.”

Gavril frowns. “That was not very specific.”

Scout smiles thinly. “Like I said, it’s a personal thing. Women’s troubles.”

“I see. You give me vagaries, you get vagaries in return.” Gavril leans against the pommel of the saddle, the brocade of his coats rasping against the sculpted bone, and smiles. “I go to eastern bay to recover… missing property.”

Scout eyes him. “If you’ve never met Mr. Lytton, how is he property of yours?”

“I did not say he was mine.”

(Chris: “You know, I bet Rabenholz would have been douchey enough to insure Lytton as a piece of his art collection.”)

Scout rolls her eyes. “Well, as I said, Lytton is no immediate concern to me.”

Gavril nods. “As you wish. Should you require any more information, you can write me at this address.” He hands out a strip of tooled-leather with the castle’s address embossed on the back.

(Me: “Is the post office still running? I know they say ‘dark of night’ but I don’t think they were really anticipating this.”)

Scout takes it. The grain on the leather is very fine, richly worked. It takes her a moment to realize the material isn’t cow.

She looks up. Gavril and his mount are gone.

#

SHADOWLANDS: LONDON

Carlos stands, grinning his asshole-pedophile grin, while his mass of masked, cloaked followers rush at me. I stumble back, lifting Vera and pulling the trigger again—

(Jason: “Didn’t the gun not work last time?”
Me: “Yeah, well, I’m pissed, and I’m scared, and when Tom’s scared he shoots things.”)

—And once again, the gun clicks uselessly. A few of the figures reach me, lifting knives. Gripping Vera in two hands, I swing her around, smashing them in the chest and face. Masks shatter and cloaked figures crumple to the floor. After a few moments, the rest pull back, watching warily.

“What the fuck is going on!?” I shout, voice echoing around the shadowy ballroom. “Why am I here?!”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” Carlos replies with his rasping voice. “I don’t suppose a werewolf got upset with you?”

I glare at him. “No, in fact said werewolf is in trouble and I really need to get back to the real world. I was trying to get some of her werewolf frenemies to help.”

“Oh, I’m sorry Mr. Lytton, it’s difficult to get back from here. Once you’re really dead.”

I lower Vera. “Am I really dead?”

Carlos shrugs. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well, I thought when vampires died we really died, not hang around as ghosts.”

Carlos spreads his hands plaintively. “And if I’m here, why can’t you be?”

I stare at him a long moment…then turn to walk out.

This time, no one stops me. The remaining cloaked figures pull back as I stride back toward the door, but as I reach for it, I spot something out of the corner of my eye.

(Jason: “Give me Perception + Alertness.”
Me: *rolls* “……Botch? Goddammit I hate perception botches, they just lead to bullshit.”
Jason: “Oooh, you have no idea….”)

There’s a brief glimpse of something in the corner of the room, deep in the shadows. A smaller figure. Thin, in an oversized jacket, with a Cubs baseball cap.

Sophia.

I turn. There’s nothing there.

“You feeling okay, Mr. Lytton?” Carlos asks with mock concern. I ignore him and continue to the door. It’s locked, but I kick it open easily, sending both doors crashing open.

“Careful, Mr. Lytton!” Carlos calls after me. “You can only remain for so long down here!”

“I know!” I shout back. “That’s why I’m trying to get out—” I stop. The ornate foyer of the building lies before me, but my attention is drawn to a burst of movement on the other side. A cluster of Carlos’s cultists are dragging a small figure out the front door to the street. There’s a high-pitched scream, and the door closes behind them.

“Girl!” I bolt across the space, ignoring the heavy shocks of Vera banging against my hip, and wrench the door open. The rain has stopped and street traffic increased, with more horse-drawn carriages and thin figures in shabby robes making their way slowly along the street. No one reacts as I stumble out into the street. “Girl?!” I shout, spinning around.

In the distance, I think I hear another scream.

I jog that direction, dodging carts and shoving my way through the pedestrian traffic. Even as I jostle them the dim figures ignore me, ducking their heads and shuffling on their way. At the end of the block, I turn the corner and stop.

A wide avenue stretches before me, weathered brick-faced houses clustered along both sides, disappearing into the fog. But far ahead in the distance, something alien rises above the London-esque landscape. A massive black tower, featureless, dark enough to absorb the meager twilight around it and shimmering in and out of sight like a half-forgotten memory. I stare, unable to look away, even as the demons inside me twist uneasily. The menace of the place is palpable, but at the same time, something about it feels familiar….

The crowd in front of me suddenly melts away. One robed figure steps forward and pulls it’s hood back. Carlos.

He grins a yellowed smile. “Careful Mr. Lytton, the more you extend yourself here, the more quickly you’ll fade.”

I reach for Vera. “Is Sophia here? You getting revenge on her too?”

“Ah, your other homicidal maniac friend.” He tilts his head thoughtfully. “I don’t know if werewolves come here too. Perhaps they fade faster.”

In the distance, I hear her scream again. This time it sounds like she’s calling my name. I shove past Carlos and dive back into the crowd, but I barely make it half a block before Carlos appears in front of me again.

I grab him. “What. The hell. Is going on?!”

“Mr. Lytton, you’re dead. Like me.”

I glare a long moment, then release him and fold my arms. “Okay, fine, if I’m dead, what do I do now? Do I get a cool house like you? Do I get my own army of Eyes-Wide-Shut-creepazoids?”

“I don’t know….” Carlos’s jaundiced gaze turns distant. “It all left me. I can’t hold onto it anymore, you see. I’ve been here…too long…. This place, Mr. Lytton, it pulls us. It spreads us until we’re gone….”

Suddenly he fades, like mist on the wind. I look around. Nothing’s nearby but the shuffling figures of the crowd. “Carlos? What the fuck, did you go back to your house?”

“Do you want a house, friend?” a voice says suddenly in my mind. An unpleasantly familiar, wheedling voice.

I tense and turn around—

I’m somewhere else. A room in a modern building, barely furnished with a couch, bookshelves, and a flatscreen TV. Everything is dark, though, and smells like smoke. Woodsmoke.

“What the hell is this?” I mutter to the empty room.

“This is your house, friend”, Mr. Tail’s voice says in my mind.

I peer at the sparse decor. “Looks more like something Paul would decorate.”

But you brought it with you….

Ignoring the squirrel, I walk to the door of the room and open it. Outside is a suburban street on a hill, gently sloping down to the sea. The smoke-smell is stronger out here and many of the nearby houses are charred black. I step outside, squinting through the haze. At the end of the street, a burnt sign is hanging from a tilted pole. Half the words are melted away, but an arrow points downhill, and I can just make out the rest of the text:

AQUARIUM

I stop. “…Oh no….”

#

SUNSET DISTRICT

Scout makes her way through the empty neighborhood streets, looking for a bus stop. Lights are on in some of the houses, but no one is outside, and the few people she sees peeking through their curtains duck away as she passes.

Suddenly her phone rings. Rabenholz’s name appears on the screen. She stares at it a minute, then answers without saying anything.

“Ms. Scout,” Rabenholz says, breaking the silence.

She takes a breath. “Yes?”

“Ms. Scout, I realize things have been tense the last few days but I understand the young will test the old. That is how they gain faith in their elders. I too was your age once.”

She rolls her eyes. “Thanks, dad.”

“I have a task you would be well suited for. Please meet me at the Fairmont.”

“Why should be interested in what you have to say?” she asks warily.

“No doubt you’ve noticed it’s noon and there’s no light. But there’s a man in Half Moon Bay named Albert Smythe. He has information on what is going on. I need him retrieved and brought in alive.” Rabenholz stops, awaiting a response. When none comes, he continues, voice stern. “This is very urgent, ms. Scout. I am giving you an opportunity to redeem yourself.”

Scout stares into the dark. “I appreciate the offer. I’ll let you know.” She hangs up.

Headlights suddenly pan across her and brakes whine gently to a halt. “Hey now! Hey there honey!” a male voice says. She turns to see a young guy in gang colors leaning one tattooed arm out the window of his car, smiling at her with a smile she recognizes.

She starts walking away.

He idles the car forward to follow. “Need a lift, honey? It’s crazy out here right now. Wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.” His grin widens as his gaze travels down her body.

“I’m fine, I’ll just take the bus,” she says, still walking.

Instantly, his face turns hard. “Look I’m just trying to be a nice guy here.”

She smiles thinly at him and turns at the corner, heading down a different street. Behind her, the man curses. There’s a hard brake squeal and a clunk as he shifts the car into park, then a bang as he climbs out and slams the door behind him. “Stuck up white bitch,” he mutters as he approaches, followed by the click of a knife—

In the next instant, he’s slammed down against the hood, Scout on top of him, fangs buried in his throat. For a few moments the two forms writhe against each other in grim imitation of what he clearly wanted in the first place. Slowly, his body pales, then sighs once and sags back against the metal. Dead.

Still kneeling over him, Scout sits up. Eyes closed, she exhales slowly, breath steaming with stolen life. She remains there a long moment….

…Till her eyes snap open and she glances furtively around. The streets are still empty, the houses still drawn shut against the dark. She climbs off the body and slides it off the hood, dragging it under a hedge in a nearby front yard, avoiding looking at the face. Once its stashed in the shadows, she stands and eyes the empty car idling in the street.

Then goes to climb into the driver’s seat.

#

SIR FRANCIS DRAKE

After finishing with the tutor, Rabenholz goes to find the Sheriff, still standing in the corner of the suite where he left her.

(Chris: “Did I get a name for her?”
Jason: “No, and the reason you didn’t is because I had a name for her, three years ago, and I do not remember it.”)

“I have a task for you,” Rabenholz says without preamble as he enters the room.

The Sheriff  looks up with flat eyes. “I’m listening.”

“There’s a vampire in this city by the name of Scout.”

She shrugs. “Don’t know him.”

“Her. She’s a newcomer in this city. Ravnos, tried to sell herself as a Caitiff.”

“They usually do.”

“I have unfinished business with her. Find her, and bring her to me if you can.

The Sheriff eyes him a moment, unknown emotions flickering across her face. “What do I get?” she asks finally.

Rabenholz lifts an eyebrow. “What do you want?”

Her gaze turns inward a moment, then focuses on him again. “Money. And a way out of this city.”

“A popular request lately.”

“Have you looked outside?”

“Yes, I can’t recall having enjoyed the day so much in a long while.” Rabenholz twitches the curtains in front of the windows a moment, then turns back to her. “Find Scout and we’ll see what we can do.”

The Sheriff nods once, then turns to leave the suite.

#

BRISBANE

With the half-empty streets, Scout reaches Brisbane rapidly. She parks halfway up the main drag of the small town and gets out. San Francisco was unnaturally quiet when she left, but this place is a ghost town. Despite the afternoon hour, all the stores are closed, their lights off, and most of the houses ranked up along the surrounding hillside are dark as well.

She walks slowly up the street, peering down alleys and side streets, then stops as she notices someone else. A thin man leaning on the wall outside a corner market store, cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes, so still she initially thought he was a statue. She eyes him, then approaches slowly.

“Well now,” he drawls without looking up. “What have we here?”

She stops in front of him and nods. “Doc, I presume.”

“You may presume if you choose. I do not care to presume, I feel it builds ill character. So I shall ask, rather than presume, who I’m speaking to?”

Scout hesitates. “We’ve met before.”

“Have we.” He looks up then, staring at her with hard blue eyes. “I do not believe we have.”

She hesitates again. “Did you not meet me outside the sewers in San Francisco?”

“I met someone outside the sewers in San Francisco, am I speaking to that self-same person? Or did that self-same person even exist?”

His gaze bores through her. She forces herself to meet it evenly, resisting the urge to rub at her face to check for missed drops of blood. “I was advised to come see you about certain assistance.”

“And who offered you that advice?” Doc asks.

“Marcus Sertorius. He said you are someone who may be able to assist with what I need.”

Doc smiles meanly. “What could you possibly need with a dentist?”

Her lips twitch. “Well, it seems when times are tough you rely on your teeth even more.”

Doc’s smile thins. “I have found that is so. But I do not offer my services for free.” He stands and folds his arms. “Who am I dealing with, really?”

“I am the one who calls herself Scout.”

“You are the servant of greater vampires,” he rumbles. “I do not know who they are necessarily and I wonder if you even do. Who is it you serve? The new Prince, the old one?”

She hesitates. “I serve my sire, for better or for worse.”

“And who is your sire?”

Scout hesitates again, shifting uncertainly, then carefully draws her knife from its sheathe at the small of her back. She lays it flat against her palm, the blade reflecting the sodium glow of the street light, and the emblem engraved on it as matte-dark as the sky overhead.

Doc eyes it a long moment. “I see.”

“Do you recognize this symbol?”

“I can infer.” His gaze snaps back to hers. “And why should I wish to involve myself in such matters?”

Scout takes a slow breath. Her hands clutching the knife tense. “Because the Priscus said you may be able to help those tied up in things they no longer wish to be bound to.”

“Does he.” Doc eyes her silently. “The Priscus is an arrogant man. He is not and has never been a man proper, and this makes him more, not less, arrogant. He thinks he understands what it is I am. Because he has some surface knowledge. He does not comprehend what it is that I do. And neither do you.”

“No sir, I do not.”

Doc stares silently a long moment, then jerks his chin toward the dusty store behind him. “What is it you imagine this place is? Some sanctuary wherein all your hurts are healed?”

Scout clutches the hilt of the knife. “I don’t know,” she says softly. “But I’m at the end of my rope.”

Doc smirks. “I have been at the end of a rope before. It’s a fate that tends not to end the way you should like. I have placed men at the end of their ropes. And there are those within this city who would offer me great reward if I were to return them your head.”

Scout tenses. “I’d hope that for someone living so far outside the bounds of society you’d appreciate those who prefer to make their own way,” she says carefully.

Doc’s smirk widens.“You appeal to my better nature. Take care, you might find I do not possess one.” The fold of his arm eases as he appraises her again. “Do you know why you are here? Why any of this is taking place?”

She shakes her head.

He glances at the knife in her hand, significantly, then back up at her. “Your master has a plan. A terrible plan, built upon the foundation of another terrible plan. Like the tower of Babel. How he means to accomplish it, I don’t know. When he means to accomplish it, I don’t know. Though evidence would indicate sooner rather than later. So if I free you from his control, what good does that do me or anyone else?”

She licks her lips. “It would be the first time in thirty years of hell I could actively try to stop him.”

Doc frowns. “You haven’t a prayer of stopping him, and I haven’t a prayer of freeing you that completely. Not in the time we have.”

Scout closes her eyes briefly in pain and nods. “I’ve also made contact with Fatima of the Assamites.”

Doc snorts. “Fatima is a fool. She believes the might of Haquim flows through her and that will let her overcome all obstacles, as though that has allowed the Assamites to do that for two thousand years. If Haquim wishes to bless his children, I doubt very seriously he’s going to start with Fatima.”

“They do say he’s still around,” Scout adds.

“They do, but if he is, he is not here and I assure you I am not him. I would likely appear a little more tan.” Doc smirks again, then straightens. “I have some sympathy for great fools, I have been one in the past. So I will do this for you. I need you to do something. I need you to go to the east to find someone. I need you to make sure he does what he must do. He needs to meet someone, someone very particular about who she meets. Someone who won’t speak to you.”

Scout’s head sags in relief. She nods. “Who do I have to find?”

“Tom Lytton.”

Scout fixes her gaze on the tooled details of Doc’s leather boots as he continues. “I need you to fish Lytton out of whatever pit he’s dug for himself, and send him to Diablo. Do that much and the rest might just take care of itself.”

Scout looks up and takes a shuddering breath. “But…my master knows now that I’ve developed resistance to him, and he’s apparently been able to watch me from afar, and if he stops me in the next few days, if he finds me—”

Doc holds up a hand, cutting off her rising panic. “He has not stopped you yet, so we must assume he is either not present or finds it commodious to his plans that you continue to act. Can’t do much about the latter, but for the former case I believe his attention may be wavering somewhat.”

Scout closes her eyes and forces a longer, slower breath. After a moment, she relaxes and nods. “What of Rabenholz? If he’s trying to hunt me as well, he has myriad resources beyond simply his own powers.”

“And here I thought you were good.” Doc leans closer, shadows falling across his face. “I suggest if Lord Rabenholz seeks to hinder you in this matter, then you show him just what it means to make an enemy of your kind.” He eyes her significantly, then straightens. “Do what I ask and I can break that bind your master holds you enthralled with. But I will not do it before.”

Scout hesitates a long moment, staring at the dagger in her hand, fear and pain twisting across her face. Finally, she straightens as well. She nods once to Doc, tucks the knife away, then heads back toward her car.

#

THE WESTIN

Rabenholz catches a car across downtown to one of his other hotel presidential suites where Rhona has been working.

“Ms. Tyler,” he greets her as he sweeps into the room. “Has there been any information on the nature of this darkness?”

Rhona stands and bows to him. “Unfortunately not much. This…shroud, for lack of a better word, seems to extend at least a hundred miles in every direction, but it’s been hard to get a sense of the exact limit because all planes have been grounded and most of the interstates are locked up in panicked traffic jams.” She smooths nervously at her white suit. “The cell networks are spotty, the internet is a mess. We can’t get emails out and the only websites working are ones hosted in local server farms. Basically we have no idea what’s going on in the outside world, or if there’s even an outside world left.”

Rabenholz considers this a moment, then sweeps past her into the office room of the suite. Shelves and wardrobes line the room, all filled with various ritual and thaumaturgical items. He removes his cloak and weapons, placing them carefully on the desk, then rolls back his sleeves and begins digging through the stores. Rhona watches nervously from the doorway as he collects the silver platter and owls blood necessary for a scrying ritual.   

“Where technology fails,” Rabenholz says as he swirls the blood over water in the tray, “Tradition will prevail.” Setting the flasks aside, he leans over the platter and concentrates, trying to reach any target beyond the scope of the Bay Area.

Darkness greets him, darker than a mere reflection should be. Rabenholz frowns and concentrates harder, extending his mind, digging and pawing through the darkness as if shoving through cobwebs—

(Jason: “Chris…ever see The Ring?”)

—Until something reaches back.

Black tendrils erupt from the pool on the tray, grabbing at Rabenholz. He shouts and leaps back. A dark, nebulous mass boils up from the silver, throbbing and pulsing, squeezing through the circumference of the tray and lashing onto the table with myriads of thin, sticky tendrils. Rhona screams and presses herself back against the wall. The creature twists and shrieks too in a sound like the rending of the universe.

“What is your name?” Rabenholz says calmly.

The creature shrieks louder, flailing its tendrils, then lunges toward him.

Rabenholz dashes forward to intercept, grabbing at the tendrils. The creature stops. Cold dark mass oozes around his arm…then tenses and hurls him across the room.

Rabenholz scrambles back to his feet. More of the monster has pulled free of the tray, exposing thicker tentacles and glowing orbs like eyes embedded deep within its mass.

(Jason: “Intelligence check, difficulty 8.”
Chris: *rolls* “Umm…three successes?”
Jason: “It’s a shoggoth. A monstrous creature from the Abyss. You haven’t heard of these things, but you’ve heard of these things, if you know what I mean.”
Chris: “…That’s confusing.”)

“Ms. Tyler!” Rabenholz shouts, holding out a hand while keeping his eye on the shrieking, growing abomination. Still pressed against the wall, Rhona nods in understanding and makes her way around the edge of the room, reaching for his cane sword on the desk—

“No, the saber!” he shouts. “Do not touch the blade!”

Rhona hesitates, then grabs Glitch and tosses it toward him, hilt first. Eyes still on the monster, Rabenholz levitates it into his outstretched hand and brandishes it. “Yield!” he shouts.

The monster shrieks again, lashing its tentacles in a whirlwind, demolishing furniture and tearing at the carpets.

Rabenholz smashes Glitch against the edge of a wooden end table. Instantly the blade erupts into flame. “Yield!

The shoggoth hesitates, whirling tendrils slowing. It twists on itself, eyes appearing and disappearing deep in the heart of its mass, then unfolds and lunges again. This time toward Rhona.

Instantly Rabenholz is across the room, slashing with the fire. The moment Glitch touches the monster’s skin, though, it erupts into white-hot flame with a thermite-bright core. The slash gouges deep and the shrieks increase. Rabenholz pulls back to try for another attack, but before he can, the whole creature ignites like a pull of gasoline.

Rabenholz ducks back, still brandishing Glitch and drawing Rhona away with his free hand, but in just a few moments, the whole creature immolates to nothing, leaving nothing but broken furniture and an oxidized platter in the center of a broad scorch mark on the floor.

A moment later, new shrieks erupt in the room as the fire alarm triggers and the sprinklers activate, drenching both of them.  

They remain motionless, staring at the mess, as the water soaks their suits. “Wh-what was that thing?” Rhona asks finally.

“A creature from the darkness,” Rabenholz says, stepping forward to investigate the wreckage. Glitch is still thermite-bright, sputtering and hissing in the spraying water. “Beyond that, I haven’t a clue.”

She stares at the sword. “Is that…is that a lightsaber?

Rabenholz examines the scorch marks, then walks back to the desk and carefully places Glitch in a metal rack to cool on its own. “People keep using that word. I’m still not entirely sure what it means.”

Rhona moves forward carefully, staring at the pile of shattered furniture, hovering a hand over the remains of a chair in disbelief. She then turns to look at the window and the unnatural darkness visible through the edges of the curtains. “Sir….” she says slowly, “…what the hell is all of this?”

Rabenholz stands silently a moment, gaze distant, ignoring the water running down his face and beard. “A test of our character.”

#

HALF MOON BAY

Anstis and his new ghoul Wayland arrive in Half Moon Bay, having secured a ride from a passing stoner—

(Me: “Oh my god, is it Brandon?!”
Jim: “Omg, yes!”
Jason: “Who’s Brandon?”
Jim: “This ex-roommate of mine, kinda scatterbrained, drives a Burning Man van.”
Jason: “…Yeah, alright.”)

The two stand outside an antique shop as the van drives away in a cloud of pot smoke and untested diesel fumes. According to Anstis’s stones—and a search of local tax records—this is one of many businesses scattered up and down the coast owned by Smythe.

Anstis knocks on the door while Wayland, contact-high from the van ride, stares intently at plants in the yard. Minutes pass. No response.

Anstis eventually notices a smell drifting on the breeze, strong enough to overwhelm his own, drifting over a set of dunes behind the shop. He grabs Wayland and they hike toward them, scrambling up the rise to see a rocky beach below.

Scattered with dead whales.

The carcasses rock slowly in the low surf, lapped by black, greasy waves. A handful of gulls gulls pick at the flesh and soar lazily on the rot-soaked breeze.

Anstis eyes the scene a moment, then turns to Wayland. “Know anyone interested in buying a whale?” He glances down again. “Or seven?”

A shotgun clicks behind them. “That’s far enough, Gangrel filth,” a familiar voice drawls.

Anstis lifts his hands, then grins and turns slowly around. “Mr. Smythe! Pleasant evening to ye!”

Albert Smythe glares down the length of a shotgun, his wretched face and tusked mouth twisted in anger. “It’s day, fucker.”

“Aye, it be. Which is why we’ve come to speak with you.”

Smythe glares and jerks the gun toward the sky. “You think I have anything to do with this?”

“Nay, but we hear you know something about the tunnels in Marin.”

Smythe sneers. “Fuck no. I was keeping down in San Simeon to get away from all that bullshit. As soon as this shroud lifts I’m getting the hell out of Dodge. Sell my shops, move down to Baja.”

Anstis smiles grimly. “I’ve seen glimpses of the future, from the Malkavians. Fire and destruction.”

“All the more reason to get away.”

“It won’t stay confined here.”

Fear flickers on Smythe’s face. For a moment his gun sags, then he tenses and raises it again. “Look asshole, I swore if I saw you again I’d kill you, so you got about ten seconds to get back to whatever chum bucket you crawled out of—”

Suddenly he stops, staring down the dunes. “Oh no, no….” He drops the gun and runs down the sand toward the beach. Anstis frowns and turns to watch him.  

A new whale has just washed up on the beach, a grey, and clearly still alive. It lolls on its side, thrashing its tail weakly against the surf, spouting against the waves flooding its blowhole. A deep, rumbling moan echoes from its body, reverberating through the sand.

Smythe splashes down into the water next to it at a run. He lays his knobby, taloned hands carefully against the flesh, then braces his feet and shoves. Slowly the whale rights. Grunting, Smythe adjusts and shoves again, trying to move the massive bulk toward deeper water, but with every inch gained the waves wash it back.

He curses, then kneels to shove his hands underneath the arc of the jaw. With a deep, bestial cry, he heaves, gradually lifting the head in the shallow water. He shuffles forward, slowly turning the two-ton bulk to face out toward open ocean. The tail thrashes harder, twisting the body. Water and sand stream from the baleened mouth and the sides swell like bellows as it inhales.

Then the whale spouts again, and this time the spray is soaked in blood.

Smythe cries out and shoves harder, but the thrashing tail slows, then stops. He hesitates, body presse against the wet flesh, then releases it and steps back. The massive bulk rolls back to its side, crashing into the surf. Water laps again at the blowhole, but no air passes through.

Smythe sinks to his knees in the cold waves, staring out at the distant, black horizon. He stays there a long moment, unresponsive to the rising waves, and ignoring Anstis as the pirate wades out to stand next to him.

“Perpenna is a madman,” Smythe says finally, still staring into eternity. “He’s been a madman for a long time. It’s all the fault of your little friend.”

“What do you mean?” Anstis asks.

Smythe’s tusked face sneers. “I knew Perpenna once. Ages ago, before I had this name. He had a menagerie, filled with copies of Sertorius. Ghouls, child ghouls flesh-crafted to look like him, and Dominated to act like him. I thought him an obsessive madman, and after he died I stopped thinking about him at all.” His sneer falls. “Until he came back.”

“How did he come back?”

Smythe shakes his head. “I don’t know.”

“What does he want?”

Smythe smiles again, this time grimly. “Everton figured it out. Came to ask me about the caves, went down into the hive. Saw the preparations in person. That pet Nephandius of his.” He looks up at Anstis. “Perpenna is going to let the Spiral Dancers summon their god and then diablerize it.”

Anstis eyes the sea, stroking his tentacles thoughtfully. “Can this be stopped?”

Smythe barks a mocking laugh. “Of course! All you’ll have to do is kill three, four thousand spiral dancers. Hope you brought…” he tilts his head, “…all of the Camarilla and Sabbat.” He laughs again. “That might be enough to get you in the door.”

Anstis glares. “Do you think Everton knew any way to stop this?”

“Everton knew a lot of things.” He jerks his chin to the north. “Go ask the man who fucking ate him.”

“Rabenholz didn’t eat him.”

Smythe tenses, then turns to stare up at Anstis in disbelief. “You’re telling me, that in the middle of an end-times spawned by unholy ancient gods, Augustus von Rabenholz killed Dr. Corwin Everton and didn’t even have the good sense to diablerize him?!”

“Nay. A waste.”

Smythe shakes his head slowly. “Everton could have known anything, but he’s a bit beyond our reach now.” He turns back to the sea. “Unless you know a necromancer.”

Still staring out at the waves, Anstis’s face breaks into a slow, evil smile.

#

SHADOWLANDS: MONTERREY

Unsure of what else to do, I wander down the hill, following the broken signs to the aquarium. The destruction of the town increases the closer I get, till finally I’m standing in front of the two story glass windows of the entrance. Every pane of glass is shattered. I steel myself and step through.

Inside is a warzone. The ceiling is half-collapsed, signs and exhibits charred and broken. I pick my way around a life-size fiberglass model of a grey whale fallen from the ceiling and sprawled cracked on its side on the floor. Around me, the tempered glass and plastic of tanks are broken or smoke-black, the water behind them boiled away. The entire place stinks of fire and the rot of the sea.

I find myself retracing my steps to where this whole thing started: the empty tank they had Anstis trapped in, with the captive shark monster. Back when I gave a fuck what happened to him. Bitter rage clenches my jaw shut as I step through the shattered glass into the tank. There’s no sign of Anstis, of course, or the shark, but I take a moment to examine it anyway.

On the third scan, Carlos is there before me.

I tense and reach for Vera. “What the hell is this place, man? Are you a ghost or not?!”

Carlos looks at me with eyes even more withered than usual, half-slumped against the back wall of the tank. “Mr. Lytton, as I was saying, we don’t last forever down here. We fade.”

“And where is down here?”

“Wherever we are after life, or unlife. I’ve been here since your mad dog put me under. I’ve clung as tenaciously as I could. But seeing you again has taken the rest out of me.” He shakes his head. “I had hoped that necromancer could help, but he’s been too slow….”

I tense. In this place, with the laws of irony being what they are, he can only mean one thing. “Wait, Anstis? You’ve been in contact with Anstis?!”

He droops more. I realize his image is fading. “I am resigned to oblivion,” he says softly. “As too will you.”

I reach out to grab him. “Carlos you son of a bitch, don’t you dare—”

But it’s too late. In the next instant, he’s gone. I stare a long moment, then turn to leave the tank.

Shadowy, robed figures line the glass outside the tank, staring at me through masked eyes. I unsling Vera. “What the hell is this?!”

Why…?” a voice says, coming from nowhere and all of them at once.

I peer into the shadows of their hoods, trying to figure out if Carlos is hiding amongst them again. “Why what?”

One steps forward. It reaches up a hand to remove its mask….

…Revealing a haunted face dotted with the ravenous boils of Kaposi’s sarcoma.

The figure—too gaunt to identify a gender—reaches toward me. “Why did you do this to us?” The other figures lift hands and begin to move toward me, passing directly through the remains of the glass.

Instinctively I pull up Vera and fire. Here, at least, she works, but the bullets don’t seem to, passing right through the figures like mist.

You can’t hurt us anymore,” the first one says, drifting closer.

I shove my way past it and run.

Moaning, pleading voices echo behind me as I scramble through the winding ruin. I follow the scent of slightly-fresher air and crash out through an exit door to the outside. I get my bearings, but slowly dread climbs as I realize where I am.

I’m not on the street, I’m on the back observation deck. With no other exits but the open sea in front of me.

I walk to the edge and look down. From what I remember, there’s supposed to be rocks and tidepools here, but now all I see is blackness, thick and deep, stretching as far as I can see.

Friiiiiiend!” the familiar unwelcome voice wheedles in my mind.

I close my eyes. “How the hell do I get out of here, Mr. Tails?”

It’s easy! You don’t!

Dark shadows move in the aquarium behind me. More and more figures are appearing from nowhere, collecting en masses and approaching.

It’ll all be over soon,” Mr. Tails continues happily.

“What happens when it’s over?” I ask, staring at the mob and fingering Vera nervously.

You pay.

I turn back toward the darkness, spread out where the ocean should be. There’s no waves, no reflection of lights on water, just pitch black, from here to the horizon.

(Me: “Like…Abyssal-black?”
Jason: “Looks like.”)

I take a slow breath. If going through the Abyss is how I got here….

I re-sling Vera and tighten her strap as I back up across the deck. “Fuck it, we’re doing it live.”

Just as the moaning, grasping mob steps through the broken doors, I bolt for the edge, take a running leap over the railing, and fall.

…And fall….

END OF NIGHT

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