The following post is interesting. First, this was going to be called simply “The Rescue of Tom Lytton, Part 2” but as I went through my final edits and rewrites I came up with this much better title. Secondly, this is yet another post where the majority of it is complete whole-cloth narrative I created in an effort to fill in more of Scout’s backstory. The first third is based on actual played dialogue and actions (done secretly off-screen, of course) but the rest, well…you’ll see.
Content warnings abound, including violence, abuse, and post-colonialist horror.
BANK OF AMERICA BUILDING
Rabenholz stands in the midst of his party, a dark stone in an anxious sea, surveying the guards as they flood into the room from the elevators. Scout watches the lockdown as well, clutching Tom’s body to her. Any moment now Rabenholz could cast his tracking ritual. Whatever he sees with his magic, it will lead from the dais directly to her, crouched just a few feet away.
Need a way out, her mind babbles, need a way away….
As she scans the room, her eyes suddenly fall on a face as anxious as her own: Leeland, in a grey-wool suit and bowtie, standing toward the back of the crowd, watching Rabenholz with a mixture of shock and horror.
It’s a straw, but she grasps it. Carefully cradling Tom, she pulls out her phone and texts Leeland one-handed:
If you wish to discuss Rabenholz, meet me downstairs.
The moment the send completes, she forces herself carefully back to her feet, hoists Tom across her shoulders, and rushes for the stairwell.
Cool, concrete silence absorbs her as she exits the room and begins the descent. Her strength and will slowly recover the further she gets from Rabenholz. By the forty-seventh floor she kicks up as much celerity-speed as she dares and flies down the remainder of the flights.
An eternity later, she reaches the ground floor and stumbles out into the lobby. Guards patrol the floor between her and the front entrance doors, a few of them leading dogs. Two guards are standing on watch at the doors themselves. She lurks against the walls, trying to watch all at once. One of the passing dogs sniffs in her direction, drawn perhaps by the smell of formaldehyde and torn flesh. It growls suspiciously, but its handler—seeing nothing but empty air—pulls it away.
Her mind races. She might be able to trick Leeland into loaning her a car, but what if he doesn’t come at all? Her best options are to appeal to allies of Tom, but the list is growing shorter. Shifting Tom carefully on her shoulders, she pulls out her phone again, this time trying the number for the Priscus. The call rings and rings with no answer. After a full minute, she hangs up.
A moment later, the phone buzzes with an incoming call. She answers.
“Who is this?” Leeland’s voice says.
A layer of anxiety evaporates away. “You should know, you’re the one who got this number in the first place,” she replies.
Leeland hesitates. “…Scout. What do you want?”
She eyes the guards. “I want to discuss this incident with Lord Rabenholz. His…art…wasn’t something I was entirely pleased to see.”
“Join the freaking club!!” Leeland hisses.
“So let’s discuss it.”
“And have him suspect I had something to do with Lytton’s disappearance?!”
“Why should he? You were talking to him when it happened.”
“This is a Ventrue lord, not a kindergartener!” Leeland snaps, then sighs. “I’m on my way down, where are you?”
“The front lobby,” she replies.
“…Why the hell are you in the lobby?”
“Cause I can’t meet you at the party, I wasn’t invited.”
A long moment passes. Scout checks the screen to make sure the call is still connected. Finally, Leeland speaks again. “…You took him, didn’t you?”
A chill settles over her.
“You took him, didn’t you!?” Leeland repeats, louder. “You give me a reason why I don’t go right back up into that room and tell that egomaniacal bastard!!”
She looks around hurriedly. Three guards are now standing at the front doors, all armed. “What proof do you have?” she asks, fighting to keep the fear out of her voice.
“You think he’s gonna ask for proof before he hunts you down?”
“You said you wanted to work against his plans.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to kill myself! You saw what he did to Lytton! He will track you down!!”
Scout leans against the wall, forcing herself to take breaths, forcing herself back into calm. “That’s why I need your help. Come down to the lobby.”
“…I’m already here.”
She looks up and scans the room again. There’s still no one else in the space but her and the guards. “Where are you?”
Someone taps her on the shoulder, under the curve of Tom’s body. She tenses, then turns. Leeland is there, staring right at her, a flip-phone held to his ear. As they stare at each other, a set of patrolling guards passes both of them without a second glance.
Leeland closes his phone. “You’re good. But you’re not that good,” he mumbles. “I don’t know what you used up there but it’s not working here. And if I can see you then it’s a damn good guess Rabenholz can too.”
She scowls and tucks her own phone away. “I’m under a little bit of pressure.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that,” Leeland sneers. “Why should I help you? If Rabenholz finds out I was involved with this in any way I’m dead.”
Scout meets his gaze evenly. “I just need a way out of this building and a place to stash him for awhile.” She pats one ruined thigh draping down her shoulder.
Leeland’s gaze flicks over Tom in momentary disgust, then back to her. “What do I get in return?”
Scout takes a breath, the chemical stench of her brother’s body filling her nostrils. “A favor.”
Leeland’s gaze turns wary. He glances again at Tom’s body. “Who are you, really?” he asks softly. “No Caitiff just walks in and starts doing this kind of thing.”
Scout shifts Tom again and draws her knife. She holds it out, flat of the blade directed toward Leeland. “Do you recognize this symbol?”
Leeland frowns at it a moment. “No.”
“Good.” She tucks it away quickly. “If you did, I would be a lot more nervous about working with you. That symbol is the personal sigil of Cantor the White.”
Leeland continues to frown, puzzled, then his eyes go wide with wonder. “You stole that from Cantor the White?”
Scout meets his eyes. “No. He gave it to me. On the night I was embraced.”
It takes a moment to register, but once it does, Leeland’s face–already pale–blanches to the same starch-white as his shirt. “You’re…the Hand…?” he sputters.
Scout’s gaze tracks another set of guards as they pass. “I’ve taken some of their correspondence courses,” she mutters.
“Cantor is involved with this?”
She turns back to Leeland, tightening her grip on Tom’s body. “Cantor doesn’t know.”
Leeland stares a long moment, then paces through the hall, muttering to himself. He pauses to stare at her, grimaces, then paces again. Finally he stops and lifts a finger toward her as if about to say something, then turns away, walking toward the guards at the front doors. Scout watches nervously, hand hovering over her knife. If Leeland turns her in, then the only option left would be to cut her way out, like she’d cut Tom off the wall….
Leeland stops in front of the doors. The guards stare through him, then jump back as they suddenly notice him. “Sir!” one barks, covering his surprise. “I have to ask you to head back upstairs, this building is under lockdown—”
Leeland smiles amiably at the three of them. “Gentlemen. I need you to open these doors and let us go.”
They stare back a long moment. “…Yes sir,” they say in unison, opening the doors without hesitation and stepping aside.
Scout stares, barely believing, then hurries across the lobby to follow Leeland out of the building.
They cross the plaza in front of the building, ducking around a shapeless black marble statue in its center. Once out of sight of the front doors, Leeland’s pace increases to a scurry, angling toward a private towncar idling on the street nearby. A driver gets out to open the doors for him. Leeland makes a show of dropping something and puttering around outside the car while Scout tucks Tom into the trunk and climbs into the backseat. A moment later, Leeland gets in too. The driver returns to the front and the car drives off.
“Take us to Oakland,” Leeland instructs, then rolls up the security glass and sits back next to her.
Scout watches Leeland as he smooths at his suit and dabs nervously at a dry forehead. The tension within her slowly bleeds out into the leather seats. “Thank you,” she mutters.
Leeland turns to her with a glare. “If Cantor isn’t planning this then what in god’s name are you doing? Are you trying to pull something over on him? Do you even know what Cantor is?”
Scout shoots a withering glare and opens her mouth to respond, when suddenly her phone rings. She looks at the screen. It’s Rabenholz’s ID. For a heart-rending moment, she expects to see him levitating behind the car, bearing down on them like he did to Jalut, but the road behind them is clear of all but regular traffic.
Catching Leeland’s eye with a silencing finger to her lips, she answers. “Yes?
“Ms. Scout,” Rabenholz’s voice says, “I have a job for you. Baron Leeland has left the Bank of America building prematurely. I need you to find him, follow him. Let me know where he is.”
She glances over at Leeland. “…Alright. It will take me awhile to get to the area but I will try.”
Rabenholz hangs up without another word. Leeland stares at her, perplexed, as she puts the phone away. “What’s your interest here?” he asks. “Decide you don’t already have enough enemies?”
Scout stares out the window as they drive, relaxing more as the dark monolith of the Bank of America building disappears into the forest of skyscrapers behind them. “My interest…is buried in my real identity.”
“You just told me you were Black Hand.”
Her gaze snaps back to him. “I’m not the Hand. I was embraced by the Hand.”
“Explain to me the difference!”
The brief peace within her shatters. The force required to maintain every lie, every half-truth and misdirect she’s used over the last weeks suddenly rebounds back into her, and snaps. “Because I wasn’t recruited, I was taken,” she shouts, voice reverbing through the confines of the car. “Thirty years ago, from a small town in Ohio. A town the man in this trunk left just one year before, when he walked out of my house!” She stops, then turns back to the window. “Our house….” she mutters.
Silence sits between them a long moment. Leeland stares, then frowns in slow recognition. “…Wait, wait, I heard something about this. There was….” He trails off and sits back. “…Oh, shit. You’re Isabella Lytton.”
She meets his gaze in silence.
“Oh, shit! Oh, SHIT!!!” Leeland jerks away, pressing against the opposite door as if trying to meld with it. “FUCK!!!!! Do you KNOW what Rabenholz will do when he finds out!? Do you KNOW what Cantor will do!? To my university? To ME?? What the FUCK is—”
Instantly Scout is on him, pinning him against the seat, knife nicking his throat underneath the silk of his bowtie. The demon within her thrills at the sensation of prey underneath her but she ignores it, leaning close to whisper in measured breaths: “Calm. Down.”
Frozen under her weight, silent in shock, Leeland stares up, eyes wide. “…My driver is armed with stakes,” he manages after a moment.
“Your driver doesn’t see anything wrong,” she replies coolly.
Leeland stares back. Whether or not he falls for her bluff, he finally relaxes into surrender.
The darkness in her surges. Kill him, it hisses. You have what you need, kill him and move on—
Through a gathering of will, she forces the thoughts aside and lowers her knife. “We’re going to figure this out. I just need a place to stash Tom for a while until he heals—”
Leeland flaps his head back and forth against the seat. “No! Absolutely not! You are not hiding Tom Lytton in my University!”
“He is a good weapon against the werewolves,” she says.
“Not in the current state he’s in! And he’s going to be drawing far more attention than he already is.” Leeland raises a warning finger at her. “I don’t give a shit what you do with me, you leave Berkeley alone!”
Still braced on his lap, she sits back. “Then I am open to suggestions. You’re a baron—”
“I’m a titular baron! They let me claim Berkeley cause no one else could handle the hippies!”
“Well you must know options outside the Camarilla!”
Leeland jerks his chin back toward the trunk. “What about his boss?”
“He’s not taking calls,” she says, unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice. First the Priscus, then the werewolf. Anyone who would have been willing to help Tom can’t, leaving everything down to just her and this sad, strange little man. With no more plan to run on, Rabenholz could find them at any moment. And then it would all be over.
Leeland falls silent a long moment, then raises his finger again as a new idea dawns on his face. “Leidesdorff.”
Scout looks up. “Who’s Leidesdorff?”
Leeland barks a laugh. “He’s the Archbishop of San Jose. Shouldn’t you know that?”
She frowns at his laughter. “Cantor doesn’t particularly care about political hierarchy. He thinks it’s beneath him.”
Leeland’s laughter dies. “Well,” he continues grimly, “The political situation is Leidesdorff took over recently after he had the previous archbishop killed. Lytton was involved somehow, don’t know much beyond that.” Leeland shrugs. “I don’t know what power you’d hold over Leidesdorff, but he’s got the firepower to hold his own.”
Scout stares out the window. The car is winding through the south side of the city, approaching the onramps to the Bay Bridge—their glittering road to safety—but surface-street traffic has collected enough to slow them to a crawl, trapping them within San Francisco city limits.
She glances nervously behind them. “Fine. How can I get from the East Bay to San Jose?”
“I can call you a car. Not one of my people, a separate service I use.”
Scout nods slowly. “I appreciate it.”
Leeland scowls and jerks his chin toward the trunk. “Yeah, well, does he?”
“We’ll see what happens when he wakes up.”
“If he wakes up.”
Instantly her knife is back at Leeland’s throat. “When.”
Leeland holds up his hands and leans away. “Okay! When!”
Scout smirks. With a new plan to grasp onto, her tension ratchets another notch down. She finds herself eyeing Leeland’s suit. It’s well made, but this close she can see patches of wear in the wool, and its Victorian lines look almost like a costume on his youthful frame.
“How old are you?” she asks slowly. “Physically, I mean.”
Leeland glares. “Twenty-four.”
She picks at the fob-chain hanging from his vest. “Then why the hell are you wearing these clothes?”
He gapes. “It was the nineteenth century! I wasn’t some kind of farmer!
She rolls her eyes and finally slides off his lap and back onto the seat. Leeland straightens his bowtie, glaring. “You’re one to talk. You wear your suits but you barely look a night over nineteen.”
She glares back. “I’m also twenty-four.”
Leeland frowns, mouth moving silently as he does mental math. “Wait, but you’re Lytton’s younger sister, and if Cantor embraced you after he left….”
He falls silent as Scout shakes her head. “The Assamites have a tradition,” she says. “Sort of an apprenticeship program. Supposedly it traces back to the Web of Knives. But that could just be what Cantor told me.” She shrugs. “New…prospects…are acquired while they’re still human. If they survive seven years, then they are ghouled. If they survive seven years of that, then they are embraced.”
You’ve never told anyone that, part of her realizes. But then, she’d never really had to. Either she had been around vampires who knew how Assamite culture worked, or it didn’t matter if they did. She waits for Leeland to respond, but he just watches her, face unreadable.
She scans out at the red lights of traffic around them, and the looming bulk of the elevated freeway overhead. Their freedom, so tantalizingly close, yet at any moment Rabenholz could descend on them both.
After a moment she finds herself continuing, filling the silence in the car with the first things to bubble to mind. “I was seventeen when Cantor first took me. But I’ve always looked young for my age.” She hesitates a moment, turning back to the window. “I think that was half the reason he chose me.”
Why are you telling him this? the dark voice within her mocks. Spilling secrets. And to a weak man, laughing stock of all the factions.
She turns to eye Leeland, sitting there in confusion and surprised silence in his antique suit and stupid bowtie and limited grasp of vampire politics. She opens her mouth to tell him to just call the second car and be quiet till they get there. Instead what pours out are words she had often thought but never spoken aloud: “But I think the other reason Cantor chose me…was me.”
The confusion on Leeland’s face deepens, momentarily overriding his fear. Before he can speak, she continues, words boiling out like infected fluid from a boil. “Tom had left early the summer before, and our mom died of cancer not long after. I was alone, scared, with just our father and his drinking. I wanted something to replace Tom. Something powerful like he had been. Maybe something with enough power that I could protect myself….” Broken memories of her last days of childhood briefly overwhelm her, but she pushes on. “I think Cantor could smell that desire. Follow it like a shark.” She takes a breath, feeling it shudder in her chest. “I don’t know if I should complain. I mean, I got the power I wanted. But I can’t ever use it to protect myself. Or at least, not from him.” The only threat that really matters.
Leeland stares at her a moment then shifts uncomfortably in the seat. “But this power…it’s Black Hand power—”
“Yes and no. Cantor taught me many things. Skills and mysteries. Many of them are probably secrets of the Hand, there’s no question he was with them for a long time and still pretends to be so. But some of the things he can do….” She trails off, remembering the Settite in the Pyramid. “…Some of the things he does, I don’t know where they come from.”
“Like the illusions?”
A laugh rises in her chest, but there’s no humor in it. “No. That is definitely not from the Black Hand.” She smiles bitterly. “My gift of illusion was exactly that. A gift.”
Leeland frowns. “From…Cantor?”
Scout turns to the window. “No. From Ramabai.”
In the ensuing silence, as she stares out at traffic and the nighttime neighborhood creeping by, the memory she had tried not to revisit—the one always so close at hand—suddenly floods back to her.
“A gift,” Cantor had said, grinning in the way that made her more nervous than when he was angry. They were in a dockside warehouse, standing in front of a heavy, antique wooden chest that blank-faced porters had just delivered.
“It’s…lovely, master,” Scout said cautiously. “But I don’t really have that many clothes….”
Cantor chuckled and reached for her. She froze as he stroked her hair. “No, my childe. This is a precious gift. Extremely rare. And extremely expensive.” He released her and knelt to unlatch the locks.
She watched warily. “What did I do to deserve such an honor?”
“It’s not what you have done, my childe. It’s what you will do.” Cantor smiled up at her and opened the lid.
Massive snakes boiled forth from the darkness inside, hissing and snapping at each other and the light, spreading hoods and poison-green eyes. Scout screamed and jumped back. Cantor, though, reached calmly through the writhing mass. A loud CRACK echoed through the warehouse as he slammed a fist against something inside.
Instantly the snakes vanished. Scout stared in shock while Cantor chuckled again. “Someone removed the stake early, I see. Perhaps they thought they would play a joke on me.”
He climbed to his feet and gestured her over. Gut twisting in dread, Scout approached the open trunk and peered inside.
A woman—with dark skin and the tattered remains of what must have once been bright, proud clothes—was bound and gagged inside. She looked up at them through wide, cautious eyes, the bruise on her face and gaping hole in her chest slowly healing before their eyes.
“Who is she?” Scout asked tentatively, not wanting to know the answer.
Cantor moved behind Scout, resting his hands on her shoulders. “She was a nuisance. She didn’t listen to the advice of her betters and ended up choking on far, far more than she could chew.”
Scout shivered in nausea as Cantor’s hands stroked up and down her arms. “…Is my gift a lesson?”
He chuckled again, cold breath against her ear. “No my childe. It is a real gift. One so rare it is worth the expense.” He gestured to the woman, watching them intently. “I give you…Chimeristry.”
Scout watches the night a long moment as the past slowly fades back into the past. “Have you ever taken a soul?” she asks.
Leeland’s face blanches again, with fear and nausea. She takes that as her answer.
“It’s a lot like sex,” she continues with forced dispassion, staring out the window again to avoid the horror on his face. “And not just because of the rush. It’s not always the same experience. Sometimes you get a lot from it. Power, memories, skills. Sometimes you get just glimpses of each. Sometimes you get a jolt of ecstasy and not much else at all.” She shrugs. “There’s no real rhyme or reason to it, though it seems to vary depending on your target’s strength, or force of will, or….”
She stares at her hands in her lap. They’re shaking. But the quiet of the car and Leeland’s guileless stare continue drawing the truth out of her.
“One of the risks of taking the amaranth,” she continues, voice soft, “is that you may not get everything you want. Skills may be lost, memories destroyed with no hope to recover them. And of course there’s the risk of losing parts of yourself when your…target…fights back. But in a few very, very rare instances, you can get absolutely everything from a soul with no risk to yourself.” She takes another shuddering breath and turns back to the window. “All they have to do…is consent.”
Silence falls, the sounds of traffic fading to a million miles away. Leeland sits frozen, staring at Scout, as she avoids his gaze, watching the car’s creeping approach to the onramp ahead.
“Consent…” Leeland repeats finally, “…to having their souls devoured?”
“I said it was rare,” Scout snaps back with a glare.
Leeland stares at her in awed disbelief. “So…with you…?”
Scout rubs at her face, as if trying to shove the memories back down, but they pour forth anyway: “In those few minutes after Cantor opened that trunk, Ramabai knew it was over. She had no idea who we were, she couldn’t even understand what we were saying, but she saw Cantor, and she saw the fear on my face, and she knew. But when she saw it was me kneeling down to reach for her, she made her decision. A choice to go willingly. She murmured her last words in my ear in Sanskrit, knowing I would understand them the moment I absorbed her….” Scout trails off, the voice echoing in her mind as clear as Leeland’s next to her.
Better you than him.
In the moments after, still riding the surges of ecstacy, Scout hadn’t just understood Ramabai’s words; she’d understood her. Memories flooded through her—strong as if she’d lived them herself—memories of a life and unlife in a hot, crowded continent.
Ramabai had been young, taken first by men and left to die on the side of the road. She’d awoken the next night, buried under straw in a lean-to barn, to healed wounds and a life reborn. She never met her sire but she’d learned her own strength quickly, and chose early on to use it to make things right. She’d spent decades hunting those who would hunt the weak—human and vampire—stalking the night to protect her communities against those who were worse. As she matured into her new identity, she eventually moved on to more sophisticated methods, using amassed resources to set up charities and women’s shelters. Eventually, confident in her power, she tried to deal with the monsters at the source and got into politics.
It was then that Ramabai made one mistake too many. And the monsters caught up with her.
In Ramabai’s last moments on the floor of that filthy warehouse, she had seen in Scout’s pale face the same fear seen in so many other women over her brief time on Earth. Her last act was a choice to do what she could to help save one more.
These memories hurt, but for once Scout doesn’t push them away, letting them settle into her head as she stares out the window, avoiding the gaze of her own reflection. Finally Leeland breaks the silence. “Well, thats…creepy,” he says slowly, “But altogether better than it could have—”
Scout whirls on him. “You don’t get it. She wasn’t a monster, she was somebody. She was raped and died to get her power and spent every moment of every waking night making sure it had not been in vain!”
Scout’s rising anger suddenly wavers, then fractures into grief, sending her slumping back against the seat. “But then she was caught, packaged, shipped across the world like some imported novelty, and consumed by the worst monster of them all.”
Moments pass. Conflicting emotions cross Leeland’s face, fear horror still being the driving themes, but deep underneath are flashes of something softer, and flickers of understanding. “You are not Cantor,” he says.
“I might as well be,” Scout murmurs. “Everything I do is his bidding, my continued existence on this Earth at the grace of his pleasure. And at the end of the line, he will claim everything of me. Just as I did of her.”
“Will you go willingly?”
Deep inside, Scout’s blood bond twitches. “…No,” she whispers.
Leather creaks as Leeland suddenly shifts in his seat, straightening up and smoothing at his suit. “Well. Then it seems he won’t get all of you. And, judging by the mess of an idiot Brujah stuffed in my trunk, you don’t do everything by his bidding.”
For a moment, Scout twitches to make a snarky reply to Leeland’s crack against Tom, but then a drained numbness settles over her. She sinks against the cold leather of the seat and stares out the window. After a few seconds, Leeland turns away too. Silence falls in the car.
It remains as they accelerate up the ramp onto the bridge and out over the dark waters of the bay.
Ramabai is named after but is not a literal representation of Pandita Ramabai, one of the first champions for social reform of the role of women in India at the turn of the last century. During her life she made exceptional advancements for improving the condition and education of women in her country and in 1919 was the first female recipient of the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal, an award for Indian public service given by the British Imperial Government until the end of their occupation. The history of feminism in India is a long and extremely complicated one—and one which I am by no means an expert in—but I wanted to use this creative work as an opportunity to bring more attention to it.
Additionally, I would like to draw attention to a problematic fact: Scout diablerizing Ramabai is very different than when Georgia killed Jawahar, and much darker on a meta-level. Georgia and Jawahar were each characters with their own agency who made some bad choices (on both their parts). Ramabai, on the other hand, was created entirely to die as part of the structure of Scout’s—a white character’s—origin story. I understood this and made a conscious choice to create this and leave it in as part of the horror of her story. Hopefully by my attempt to treat it with respectful weight it will be read as such. Honestly, it made me more uncomfortable to write than anything I’ve done so far in the last five years. Hooray horror games.
This ride isn’t over yet. The next scene will be the final piece in this continuous arc. It also has a lot of material I wrote from scratch and I think it’s actually my favorite piece in this entire series.