S.H. Epilogue 5: Last Call at Esteban’s

In our last Scout update of major relevance, we return to 06/09/16, the night/day that eternal darkness first fell over the city. This segment shares her point of view from a couple already-published scenes and fills in one very major secret scene missing until now.

***

SEAL ROCK INN

Scout wakes up to the sound of someone shouting. She gets up and pads to the window to peer outside. A small crowd has gathered at the entrance to Sutro Heights Park across the street, watching a man standing on a milk crate and broadcasting through a handheld loudspeaker.

Odd place for a street show, she thinks, then glances at the sky. Especially with a storm coming. She gropes for her phone to check the time. It must be something special for so many people to be out so late–

She stops. The time on her phone reads eleven. Eleven in the morning.

She stares out the window again, gaping again at the sky: not blackened with clouds, but a flat black that devours the light.

Shit. She dresses quickly and hurries downstairs.

#

The man’s angry words ring across the neighborhood as she steps outside, shouting about monsters and how they must find and purge them before the world freezes in eternal winter. Frowning, she crosses the street to approach the crowd.

“BEHOLD!!!” the man screams, loudspeaker shoved against his mouth, eyes wild. “The end times! See the creatures that walk among you!” Suddenly he stops, then raises a hand directly at her. “Vile beast!! This is your doing!!!”

The crowd turns to look at her. Scout freezes, then makes a show of turning to look behind her.

“See her standing there!” the man continues. “She is a creature of the night. No pulse, no breath, just a walking corpse! I can see it! I can smell it!! The monsters must be cleansed!!!”

Her stomach twists. This is just one too many coincidences to igno–

Suddenly the man drops the loudspeaker and reaches into his coat, pulling out a gun.

Human reflexes grab control of her vampire ones, obfuscating her as the the crowd screams and scatters. She ducks as gunshots ring out overhead and hurries through the chaos, heading deeper into the park.

Streetlight fades as she jogs across the grass and under the dark street. Shouts echo behind her, but no one seems to follow. She slows as she reaches the ruins of Sutro Castle, climbing the weathered stone stairs and stepping out under open, matte-black sky once again. The ruins are empty, so she drops her obfuscate as she walks to the edge to look out over the entire sprawling western half of the city.  

Darkness hangs low in the sky, horizon to horizon, swallowing any light reflected on it. Sirens echo around the city from all directions and ocean birds cry as they wheel about the heights, flying erratically in the starless gloom. Under these sounds, though, is a strange, alien-like chorus, echoing from below. Carefully, she moves closer to the edge and looks down over the three-mile stretch of Ocean Beach below.

Whales. She stares in shock at dozens of beached whales and dolphins sprawled on the sand, thrashing in the black surf, crying and spouting as they die. Many are already still, rocked slowly back and forth by the the thin waves. People are gathered along the road nearby, watching nervously, but clearly unsure of how to help.

Far down the beach, a roar approaches, growing steadily louder. A coast guard helicopter is flying along the shore, observing the whales and warning people back via loudspeaker. The helicopter rises as it approaches Sutro Heights, climbing to clear the rocky cliffs and circle back around for another pass. She watches helplessly as it rises too high and disappears into the featureless black overhead.

Silence falls. Scout stares at the spot it disappeared, a sick dread refusing to let her turn away. A few moments pass, then the helicopter reappears. Falling from the sky, on fire.

Horror overwhelms her being as she watches the madness unfolding around her. She sinks onto a nearby bench and digs out her phone with a shaking hand. In all her years in the darkness, she had never seen anything like this. Though it nauseates her, she finds herself reaching for the only source of information she can conceive of in this nightmare.

She pulls up Cantor’s number. What’s going on? she texts.

A message pings back with surprising speed: APOTHEOSIS.

Scout stares out again at the dying whales, the burning helicopter wreckage sinking into the sea, and the endless black overhead. She takes a slow breath and forces herself to ask the question she fears she knows the answer to: Is this you?

This time, minutes pass before she receives a response:

SOON.

#

SUNSET DISTRICT

Scout’s instincts scream to collect more information, from someone besides Cantor. Unfortunately with Bell and the Camarilla likely ready to put her head on a pike the moment she shows herself, the only other option in the area is the Anarchs, which means going back to Esteban’s.

Not long later, she arrives at the bar. Despite the darkness, the place seems to be abiding by the hours posted on the front door and is currently closed. She strides up and knocks firmly. After a few moments, someone creaks the door open and slides a shotgun barrel into her face.

She stares down it coolly, meeting the gaze of the man at the other end. “I want to talk to Esteban about what’s going on.”

The man eyes her a moment, then nods and lets her in.

Inside is emptier than usual, without even the usual complement of thugs lurking in the shadows. Esteban, though, is at his usual table in the balcony above the bar. He nods at her as she crosses the floor below and climbs the stairs toward him. The TV near him is on mute, but the screen shows frantic camera footage and news reports from around the city.

She approaches the table and waits to be formally acknowledged. Esteban watches the TV a moment. “Interesting times. Many interesting things to see, Ms. Scout, and yet you come to me?”

She shrugs. “I was in the area. I was hoping you’d heard something of what’s going on. I haven’t been able to access any internet reliably.”

Esteban puffs at his cigar. “I am not a scout, but I hear you know someone who is,” he says with a grin.

She scowls. “I’ve seen her around.”

Esteban taps his ash into the tray. “I also hear an interesting thing. I hear there is a man who wishes to see you.”

Her gut wrenches. Could Esteban have been roped into Cantor’s labyrinthine plot too?  “Really,” she says with forced nonchalance. “Nobody’s called me.”

“No, they have not because this man who wishes to see you is…different in his methods.” Esteban places a hand against his chest. “You see, I am a businessman. When I wish to see someone I call them. I present them reasons why they should present themselves to me. But this man who wishes to see you is a different sort of man. A different background, I should think.”

A chill settles through her, colder than the sunless ocean outside. “So why hasn’t he come to me personally?” Or has he? She tries to tap into her blood bond, sensing for Cantor’s presence in this bar, but with the chaos and fear already piled into her over the last hour she can’t tease out any insight from it.

Esteban takes a long pull from his cigar, then exhales in a sigh. “I feel as if I should apologize. Because you see he has.” He looks up at her with a sad smile. “I’m sorry, I truly am. But, though I value my independence, when a Justicar comes—”

The ice inside her turns to fire. She draws her knife and obfuscates in the same instant of breath between Esteban’s words. He smiles as he continues, “—One must do what one must do.”

Scout ducks deep into the shadows, eyes darting to locate an exit, trying not to think about pikes. Before she can move, heavy footsteps ascend the stairs, approaching the balcony. A thrill freezes her in place as Bell appears above the crest, leather coat flaring gently, face expressionless under his sunglasses, and shotgun cradled against his arm.

<hunter acknowledging the hunter. slice knife across palm of her hand, willing strongest poison into it. goddamn, I really hope I dont have to kill him>

Bell stops at the top of the stairs, scanning the shadows slowly. Esteban nods a greeting, but he ignores him. “I gotta admit,” Bell rumbles after a long moment, “You had me fooled. That’s not common.”

Bell paces slowly across the floor, circling Esteban’s table. Still obfuscated, Scout presses against the wall.

“I knew you weren’t what you said you were,” Bell continues, nonchalantly addressing the air. “But you played one hell of a game, didn’t you? You’re no Caitiff.” The shotgun cocks heavily. “And you ain’t no Ravnos either.”

Scout tries to sidle toward the stairs but Bell stops a few feet away, positioned perfectly between her and escape. “It took me awhile to figure it out,” he says, “But now….” He turns toward the shadows and raises the shotgun, leveling it directly at her obfuscated face. “…I think we got ourselves a conversation to have.”

Scout closes her eyes a moment, then allows herself to reappear.

Bell’s glower deepens. “Where. Is Cantor.” He cocks both barrels with a heavy click.

Scout meets his eyes a long moment before responding. “Marin.”

“And he left you behind to clean up the mess.”

“That’s always been my job.”

“It has, hasn’t it. Least that’s what the rumors say.” Bell’s gaze flicks over her appraisingly. “How long has it been?”

“Thirty years.”

“Well you must be getting to the end of your life cycle, musnt you. You know what he does to his others. You can’t be that dumb. But there’s more to it than that, isn’t there?” Bell paces closer, the shotgun still raised, stone-steady in his hands. “I couldn’t figure it out. Why would a Black Hand Assamite pretending to be a Caitiff have anything to do with Tom Lytton, let along risk blowing her cover just to steal him out from under every Camarilla nose in the city? I mean Tom’s dumb enough to get himself involved in any amount of trouble, even Cantor, but this didn’t have Cantor’s hand on it.”

Bell looks her over again, as if seeing her for the first time. “Your name isn’t Scout. You’re Isabella Lytton.”

Dead silence falls in the bar. Scout stands frozen, beyond fear or panic, waiting to see what happens next. Bell stares back with equal coldness. To the side, still in his chair, Esteban watches both of them with interest, idly tapping ashes off his cigar.

“That’s a hell of a game,” Bell says finally, “But it’s about to end. What is Cantor doing in Marin?”

Her blood bond suddenly twitches, likely stirred by the idea of revealing her master’s secrets. She fights against it. The shadows behind Bell seem to momentarily spin, then settle as the pressure eases slightly. “He’s…mixed up in whatever Perpenna’s doing,” she finally manages.

“Oh I know that, but what I don’t get is why. There’s only one king at the end of this and Perpenna aims to make it himself.”

Her gut twists. “He’s kept his larger plans insulated from me for quite some time,” she says. Likely for this exact reason.

Bell’s eyes narrow. He lifts the gun higher. “Then you see any reason why I need you alive right now?”

Fear suddenly flickers to life. “Cause I’m your best link to him?”

Bell snorts. “You gonna violate your bond, sell him out to me? I don’t think so. I know what it’s like to be a slave. Maybe I should just do you a favor.”

Instincts flicker, reminding her of the knife still in her hand. For a moment her demon thrills to attack, lusting for the chance at an equal opponent, a worthy prey, but it’s quickly checked by the human sides of her.

Scout doesn’t want to kill him. In a city of monsters, Bell is one of the few honorable ones she’d met. More to the point, rational thought chimes in and begrudgingly admits she’s not sure if she can. Bell is one of the deadliest vampires ever, having killed many of higher power than himself–

She twitches in shock as the realization hits: —Including Black Hand agents.

Her blood bond wrenches, realizing what she’s thinking at the same moment she conceives of it, but she gathers her will and chokes words out through it: “Y-you could do me a favor…by stopping him.”

Bell frowns. Surprise flickers across his stony face. He looks her over again, seeing the tension in her muscles, the concentration on her face. His shotgun lowers a fraction of an inch.

At the same time, the shadows behind Bell flicker again, but it’s no misperception on her part. A figure appears from them, melting from the shadows and a deep, deep, obfuscate, eyes staring at Scout over a cheshire-cat grin all for her.

Cantor.

Every nerve in her body activates at once, screaming in terror, stretching the next heartbeat of a moment out to infinity, paralyzing her with life-threatening indecision. Does she warn Bell so he can make good on his duty and take Cantor out? Or does she succumb to her wrenching bond and help her master? If she does nothing, she will die, but if she chooses the wrong one, she’ll die anyway.

Or then, there’s always the third way: run.

In an instant, she doppelganger’s herself, sending her illusion one way across the bar while her real form dashes the other, leaping over the balcony rail and landing heavily on the floor below. Bell turns to follow the figures, raising his gun again. As he does he spots Cantor behind him and freezes a moment in surprise.

Cantor bursts toward him like an exploding bomb, lashing out with his knife, a larger version of her own, cutting a swath through the air toward Bell’s neck–

Bell isn’t there. He appears beyond Cantor’s sword arm as if teleported. Gunshots ring across the bar and there’s a sword in Bell’s hand, swinging toward Cantor, then slicing through clean air as Cantor’s image suddenly sutters like a mirage and he’s behind Bell, lunging at his throat–

Scout tears her gaze away from the battle and scrambles to her feet, panic driving her toward the door, distantly aware of the shouts of Esteban’s men and the clatter of more weapons. The green light of the exit sign shines like a beacon and she crashes into tables and chairs in her dash toward it. There’s more shouts, something grabs her from behind–

–Then everything goes black.

#


The next thing Scout knows, she’s waking up outside, sprawled on the blacktop of the parking lot. Bleary and confused, she snaps instinctively into obfuscation and shoves herself upright, twisting to look around.

Behind her, Esteban’s bar is on fire.

Various figures dart in front of the flames, some dressed like Esteban’s men, some clearly people from the neighborhood. Incoherent shouts echo over the rising roar. But there’s no sign of Bell. Or Cantor.

Scout gapes at the fire a long moment, frozen in shock and fear, then–feeling overly exposed even under her obfuscate–she scrambles upright and hurries away across the street. She pulls deep into the shadows under the trees, watching the fire in disbelieving horror.

Did Bell do this? Did Cantor? Are they both dead? Did one survive? Or maybe they both did, in some form or another…. Her gut twists in nausea at the thought of Cantor devouring even Bell with the same ease as any of his other prey. She draws deeper into the shadows, as if retreating from the thought–

Then suddenly bumps into something behind. Something else obfuscated. She freezes, sure that it’s Cantor come for her now too, but when no hand comes from the darkness to grab her she slowly works up the nerve to turn and see.

A man is there also watching the fire, vampire pale, in richly-layered clothes and fine cheekbones just a little too chiseled to be natural. But she barely notices more than this, because her attention immediately focuses on what he’s riding.

A massive beast, large as a Clydesdale, balanced on two powerful legs, with long clawed forearms trailing to the ground. Taloned feet dig into the earth and clusters of striped spines erupt from every dorsal surface, except the mid-back, where an organically-sculpted ivory-and-bone saddle sprouts directly from the flesh. Muscles flex under mottled blood-red skin, arcs of bone erupt elegantly from the joints, and lines of blue-black scales armor and highlight the rolling organic contours. The whole creature looks as if someone had once been told about the idea of a dinosaur then proceeded to construct one out of leftover parts, from the tip of the long, stiff tail to the wedge-shaped head balanced on a serpentine neck.

A head which, despite Scout’s obfuscate, is currently staring right at her, the light of the fire reflected in its massive, golden eyes.

Scout freezes with a new, more animalistic type of fear as the monster leans forward, nostrils flaring as it sniffs at her. The lip curls and the mouth opens, revealing multiple rows of razor teeth. Rotting-stench breath washes across her as as the thing leans leans closer…

…And licks her.

At this, Scout’s obfuscate breaks enough for the rider to notice her. He looks down curiously. “Who are you?” he asks in a thick Slavic accent.

The ridiculousness of the situation finally jolts her out of her terror. Scout tears her gaze from the creature’s golden eyes and stares up at the man. “Are you…with him?” she asks, dropping clear emphasis on the last word.

He cocks his head. “Do be specific.”

More tension drains from her. “If you were, I wouldn’t need to be.”

The man bows from the saddle. “I am Margrave Gavril Yasenev Tsaratsovoshki.” He gestures to the bar. “Was this your doing?”

She turns to watch the flames a few moments. “No,” she says softly.

“What is your name?”

She turns back to him. “Scout.”

He frowns. “That is not name, that is title.”

“My name isn’t important right now.”

They eye each other in silence a long moment as Gavril’s mount continues to lick her.

“What are you doing here?” Scout asks finally, tugging her arm away and frowning at the saliva staining her suit.

“Neshka and I were on our way into the city and saw the fire.” He frowns thoughtfully. “You are Scout of Lands End?”

“That’s where I’m staying,” she replies, tone wary. The last thing I need right now is a new client.

“I am also looking for someone. I am told you can find things.”

Dammit. She shifts, glancing again at the fire. “Told by whom?”

“Sources.”

“What sources?”

Gavril settles back in the saddle and smiles. “Tell me your name, I will tell you my sources. Information is two way street.”

Scout eyes him a long moment. Fake names on top of fake names can be a complicated ruse, but if it works…. “Tiffany,” she says coolly. “Tiffany Bennett.”

Gavril nods. “Archbishop has mentioned you before. Says you have done work for him.”

Scout hesitates. Does he think she’s with the Hand? She debates trying to feel him out on this without giving away any more of herself, but before she can an explosion from the bar rocks the neighborhood. She, Gavril, and his mount flinch instinctively, and the growing crowd shouts about gas mains and starts to scatter out into the neighborhood.

“We should move away from this area,” Gavril says. At his unspoken command, Neshka turns away, rippling through the shadows and padding down the empty street away from the fire.

With nothing else to guide her at the moment, Scout moves to follow him, glad to be getting away from the flames and the questions they rise. As she does, though, a piercing shriek rises from the inferno behind her, its words barely intelligible over the roar of the inferno: “Kai su, tekna!?”

Scout stops, suddenly cold again in the midst of the roiling heat. The voice is warped with pain and rage, roaring with no more humanity than the fire itself, but deep down there’s no question who it belongs to. There’s also no question about its meaning, considering that very voice had trained her in classical Greek:

You too, my child!?

After a moment, she forces herself to continue after Gavril, moving stiffly, refusing to turn and look back, disappearing into the darkness under the unnatural sky.

#

Thus ends the detailed-epilogues, but here’s the thumbnail reminder of what happened next. Scout eventually leaves the city to meet up with Doc to get more information about what the hell is going on. She’s nervous around him since Doc clearly knows more about her than he lets on, a fact which is all but confirmed when he tells her that it’s her task to find Tom Lytton and get him to Mount Diablo.

On the way to the mountain in the east bay, she runs into Leeland who has been captured by Sergei and his men. (The irony of all this, of course, is that if Leeland had never helped Scout rescue Tom in the first place, then Tom would never have escaped and sent Sergei’s men up to Berkeley to tear shit up and capture him. Thus it’s essentially Leeland’s own fault he got into this mess, and you can see why he’s more angrier than usual.) When they meet up Sergei is somewhat deferential to her–seeing as how she had already been introduced to him as a Hand agent–but not enough to follow her request to let Leeland go.

Gavril also eventually meets up with her again. Besides plot convenience, this happened because Gavril set Neska to follow Tom Lytton’s scent into the east bay hills, but once there Neska zeroed in on the next closest available Lytton she could smell.

The last we saw of Scout, this ragtag group of semi-Sabbat was heading toward whatever has been brewing high on the slopes of Mount Diablo.

 

END OF SCOUT’S HONOR

 

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