Sorry for the delay, just end of semester drama as usual, but I promise to get to the scenes everyone’s been waiting for before the end of the year!
Scout stands outside the Dragon Gate at the base of Grant street, staring up at the stonework and green tile. Lingering tourists and the lights of late-night restaurants and shops stretch into the neighborhood beyond, postcard bright and inviting, but something nags at her, tingling down her spine. Similar to the sense she gets when she knows Cantor is watching her. This presence, though, feels less friendly.
Scout takes a breath and walks under the gate. Openly visible.
She takes her time moving through the neighborhood, reading signs and peering into windows. Passing one shop with displays still set up outside, she pockets a cheap novelty necklace. A block away, she pauses to throw away the plastic trinket, loops the chain through the Chantry key, and tucks it under her blouse as she walks.
She’s deep into the heart of the neighborhood by the time she spots anyone following her. Stopping to look at a tea display, she glances back. A young Asian man in a suit is strolling along the sidewalk a few yards behind. He’s not looking at the shops.
She meets his eyes, then ducks around the corner into an alley. As soon as she steps out of sight, she casts a doppelganger to wait patiently in the middle of the alley while her real form slips unseen into the shadows nearby.
Footsteps approach, then the man enters the mouth of the alley. At the same time, footsteps echo at the other end and two more men approach from the other side. All the men are focused on the illusion, forming into a loose triangle around her. The real Scout eases, secure in her mask, but keeps her hand on her knife, wary.
At some unspoken signal, a fourth man enters the alley, an older Asian gentleman in a far more expensive suit. He approaches the illusion, eying her coolly. “Who are you?
The illusion bows respectfully. “My name is Scout.”
“That’s not a name.”
“It’s the one I’m using for the moment. I am looking to speak with Oliver Thrace.”
The older man looks her over and sneers. “This domain is not welcoming to outsiders. If you were anyone worth my time, you would know that.” The three men with him suddenly take a step forward.
Scout rolls her eyes. This is clearly a dead end. Still, perhaps it’s best to put up a show of a fight before disappearing completely. She injects a veneer of fear into the doppelganger, directing it to draw its dagger, a match of the real on in her hand. The men chuckle, trading glances as they draw long daggers of their own….
Suddenly, the elderly man holds up a hand, freezing them in their tracks. His expression is still flat, but he stares at the knife in the illusion’s hand. From her vantage point, Scout follows his gaze, finding it fixed on the symbol etched along her blade, glinting visibly in the wan light of the alley.
The elderly man takes a step forward, now wary himself. “What interest does one such as you have with Oliver Thrace?” the man asks cautiously.
Scout eyes him carefully, caution rising. Even in the Sabbat, she had encountered few who could immediately identify Cantor’s personal sigil. None of them were people she wished to encounter again. “It’s personal,” the illusion says flatly.
“Is it.” Still staring appraisingly, he lowers his hand slowly. His men trade confused glances but step obediently back. After a long, tense moment, the older man nods. “I will speak with one more senior. Perhaps an arrangement can be made.”
Both Scout and the illusion nod. “If I need to contact you…?”
The man bows lightly. “I am Xiang Li Weng. You should go now. This place is not safe after dark.”
Scout nods again, then dispels the illusion. Mind racing, she ducks out of the alley before Weng or his men can move.
Over the last three decades, the number of people who knew her association with Cantor could generally be counted on one short-lived hand. But now at least three different vampires within the same city had learned her allegiance in as many nights. Instinct honed by years of his training—Black Hand training—twists uncomfortably.
You’re being sloppy, part of her whispers as she walks. Your actions are his actions. Your continued existence is at his whim. If you’re fucking up, you’re a risk to him. And if you’re a risk to him….
She pauses as she reaches the main Chinatown street. But on the other hand, another part of her counters, since I started throwing his name around, situations have gone much more my way.
Chinatown has closed down considerably over the last half hour. She hurries down Grant Street, toward the distant skyscrapers and lights of Union Square, making her way quickly down the empty sidewalks, accelerating with each block. The final hill before the gate appears before her and she breaks into a jog–
A beggar suddenly stumbles out of an alley before her, layers of rags obscuring its gender. She stops to avoid hitting it. It babbles in slurred Cantonese and stares right at her. Even though she’s still obfuscated.
Wary, she tries to step around, moving quickly, when suddenly another one appears from nowhere, also babbling in Cantonese and thrusting a piece of paper at her. Scout turns to find her way blocked by a third come up behind her, wrinkled papers clutched in her hands, before shoving through their outstretched arms. More have appeared, clustering closer, waving more flyers. She tries to force her way through but only gets absorbed deeper into the crowd, a living, chattering quicksand that stinks of rotting clothes.
She gropes for an escape. Instinct screams at her to slash, bite, but if this is just some game of Weng’s it could ruin her chances to get to Thrace. She needs something trickier, something subtle….
With a brief gathering of will, the staccato rip of firecrackers suddenly erupts from somewhere within the grasping crowd. The figures cry out, pulling back in surprise. Scout uses the break to force her way through.
Still obfuscated, she bolts the nearest direction that will take her downhill, finding herself in another narrow alley, but one that appears to lead down and out of Chinatown. Slowing to a jog, she glances back to check if the crowd is following. Convinced she’s clear, she turns forward again.
The end of the alley has transformed into a solid brick wall. She stops at its base and beats it with the flat of her hand. It’s solid, no tell-tale tingle mental tingle of illusion at all.
Confused horror rises but she shoves it away, focusing on the moment. Fire escapes line the walls of the alley and she leaps to grab one. The moment her feet leave the ground, the metal twists and withdraws from her reach, leaving her hands to close on empty air. She lands and tries again, but the bars pull back farther. Metal groans up and down the alley as all the ladders shrink up their buildings like withering vines.
Scout draws her knife, scanning rapidly for other escape options, and on the third glance realizes she isn’t alone. A woman is standing a few yards behind, blocking her escape. Her hands are tucked demurely away in a long-sleeved green brocade gown, her delicate Asian features half-shadowed by a red orchid in her hair, and despite the fact that Scout is still obfuscated, she stares directly at her with a subtle smirk.
An eerie stillness settles over Scout. Whatever this woman is, she looks just innocent enough to be anything but. After a moment, Scout lets herself reappear.
The woman smiles wider. “Kin-jin,” she mutters, then tilts her head. “…Scout,” she says slowly, as if tasting the word.
Scout’s hand fidgets on her knife. “And your name?”
“Xia,” the woman responds, like a breath of laughter. A stirring echoes from above. The fire escapes have pulled from their moorings and twisted together, forming a rusted-iron lattice across the top of the alley.
Eyeing this, Scout shifts. “And what is it you want with me?”
“That is not the question,” a new voice barks from somewhere in the dark. Male, with a sharp British accent. A man with greying hair and formal evening wear suddenly steps of of a darkened alcove on the side of the alley, one not nearly deep enough to have hid him before. He strides forward to stand next to the woman, watching Scout with a piercing gaze. “The question is, what it is you want with us,” he snaps.
Scout’s nerves plunge deeper into dread. “Mr. Thrace, I presume.” Just the start of their discussion and already he has the considerable upperhand.
Thrace sneers. “And who are you?”
“As your colleague identified, my name is Scout. I am looking to contract your assistance.”
His sneer deepens. “You haven’t the means to contract with me, girl. You know nothing of what you’re doing, meddling with power far beyond your ken.”
Frustrated disbelief breaks across her face. Her hand tightens on her knife. “I’ve been pulled into situations with powers far beyond my ken–”
Thrace barks a laugh. “You don’t know what it is to be pulled into anything.”
The knife’s chill feels reassuring in her hand, despite the years of blood and horrors soaked into its metal. “Don’t I?” she replies.
Thrace’s sneer flashes with rising anger. “You dare speak back to me? I shall leave you to be devoured, as is your warrant.”
For a moment, the dread returns. He knows who I am, something inside her says, he knows what Cantor will do to me, and doesn’t care—
No, another, darker part of her responds. If he knew what you were, he would treat you with a lot more respect. That is your warrant.
She straightens. “You’re Tremere. Are you associated with the Chantry here?”
Thrace scoffs. “The Chantry here is nothing. The Regents are nothing. The Council is nothing. What do you know?”
“I know how to get in.”
Thrace laughs mockingly. “Of course you can. The wards are down, you need only walk. Anyone can walk in now. You think that some coup? You are unworthy of me, and of us. You will die with all the rest, in short order. Caitiff.”
Scout glares at Thrace, then, in one movement, throws her knife point-first into the cracked asphalt at his feet.
Xia lifts an eyebrow, but Thrace looks down at the weapon and scowls. “What is this? Some thieved trinket to impress me? I who have walked the stars?” Thrace picks up the knife, turns it over once, eyes the symbol…then lets it clatter to the ground.
Scout’s stomach drops. Crap.
It’s not enough to let him assume, the darkness within her chides. You must claim who you are.
Thrace turns to Xia. “Do with her what you would. I have no use for this one. No one does.” With a grinding squeal, the jagged iron hanging above begins to descend. Thrace snorts disdainfully and turns to walk away.
NO. There’s a rush of breeze as Scout blurs and reappears in front of him in the space of a breath.
Thrace stops. “Was that supposed to impress me?”
“No, but this might.” Scout reaches into her shirt and pulls out the Chantry key, hung on a simple chain.
Thrace’s sneer doesn’t falter, but his body suddenly tenses. “Where did you get that?
Resolve pours through her like honey. She plays the chain around her fingers. “From Vannevar Hughes’s corpse.”
Thrace’s eyes narrow. “Then he is dead. One can never be sure. What were you planning to do with that?”
“Vannevar Hughes and I had an agreement. He died before he could make good on it.”
“An agreement? With a Caitiff girl?” Thrace snorts. “And what, you expect me to be bound by his agreements?”
She taps the key. “No, but I still need a Tremere, and when I am through, I won’t need this anymore.”
Thrace eyes her down his nose. “I see. And what was it precisely that Vannevar Hughes was supposed to do?”
“That is something perhaps better discussed in private.” Scout’s gaze flicks to Xia, waiting patiently behind Thrace. The woman smiles back coyly and shrugs.
“I’m afraid the situation isn’t that simple,” Thrace says, folding his arms. “If you have a proposal to make, make it now.”
Metal groans in the silence. Scouts eyes dart between them–and the rusted rods undulating overhead–then takes a breath. “Vannevar Hughes had something I needed in the Chantry and I need a Tremere to get it.”
Thrace nods toward the key. “My understanding is with that you have full access to the Chantry.”
“It’s something stuck within a mirror.”
After a moment, Thrace smiles in understanding. “Ah. Of course. What is it?”
Scout tenses. “That…is not relevant.”
Thrace’s smile turns mean. “Oh I’m afraid it is. The situation here is more complex than you realize, Caitiff.”
Mind racing, and with another glance at Xia, Scout produces an answer. “Within the mirror is someone of no use to you, or the Tremere, but is of use to me and my proceedings in this city.”
“I shall be the judge of that.” Thrace folds his arms. “You wish for me to retrieve you this someone, in exchange for what?”
“You can have this key. And once I have that someone, I have no need for that place.”
Thrace eyes her a long moment. “That may be a heavier request than you think. And why should I deign to negotiate with you at all? Why shouldn’t I simply take what is right before me?” He nods toward the key in her fingers. “Afterall, there’s nothing but a Caitiff with a stolen knife to stand in my way.”
Deep inside, the dark voice within her laughs in triumph. Now….
Suppressing the shaking in her hand, Scout kneels to pick up her knife from the ground at Thrace’s feet and rotates it to flash Cantor’s symbol again. “Because,” she says with weighted, measured words, “The person who gave me this blade does not like to share his toys.”
Doubt suddenly flickers across Thrace’s face. Still eyeing her, he reaches a hand toward the knife. Scout holds it up, watching carefully as his fingers make contact and his vision softens into a deeper-sight.
And watches his face as the little color left in it drains.
A glow of pleasure snakes through her as she watches him, not unlike the lingering rush from taking the amaranth. Clearly in this case there’s no transfer of soul or blood involved, and it takes her a moment to realize the connection:
Thrace removes his hand slowly. “I see,” he mutters. “Well then. This is a more complex situation than…anyone realized.” He eyes her a long moment, then nods. “You have a deal.”
Thrace looks to Xia. She stares back flatly, but the twisted metal overhead peels away, retreating to the walls with screeches of frustration.
Scout nods graciously. “Shall I contact you when I have an opportunity to arrange our transaction?”
“Do so,” Thrace says as the walls enclosing each end of the alley suddenly vanish. “I will be watching. I have been watching. And beware, the city is dangerous these nights. More so than Hong Kong.”
Scout tucks her knife back in its place at the small of her back. For a strange moment, it feels good to have it there. “It got more dangerous the night I got here,” she says.
Thrace straightens his coat. “We will see about that.”
He and Xia disappear. A moment later, Scout does as well.
END OF ADDENDUM