Chris: “Yeah, this hasn’t really been an ecologically-sound move.”
Jason: “This whole mountain is going to be a superfund site when we’re done with it.”
Chris: “But on the other hand, Rabenholz more than anyone probably follows the adage, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’”
Rabenholz wakes up to the sound of a klaxon. Last he remembers, he was on the mountain, but now he’s slumped against the wall of a stark metallic corridor pocked with scorch-marks. The light pulses in tune with the warning alarm echoing off the walls.
After a moment, he gets carefully to his feet, but something jerks him off-balance. His left arm is fused directly into the wall.
Frowning, he tests it with a gentle pull. It’s stuck solid, but at least he can feel his forearm and hand still attached somewhere within. Laying his free hand against the wall, he object-reads it to get a sense of its property.
The entire thing is made of primium.
(Jason: “If you still had Glitch you could cut it out, maybe, but…you don’t.”
Me: “…Wait, doesn’t he still have his cane sword?”
Jason: “Yes, but that’s not enough to cut a primium wall.”
Me: “Yeah, but, he can just cut off the arm.”
Me: “You can get another one.”
Chris: “Yes, but I’m rather attached to this one.” *pause* “Can’t put my finger on why….”)
Rabenholz looks around. The klaxon is still shrieking, but so far there’s been so sign of anyone else.
Resignedly, Rabenholz draws his cane sword and slices off his arm. Vitae oozes down the metallic surface and drips slowly from the stump, but he ignores it. Gathering his cloak away to avoid staining it, he goes to explore the corridor.
Smooth metal and more scorch-marks greet him as he makes his way down the sweeping halls, but there’s still no sign of life. After the first corner, he finds a humanoid corpse crumpled against the wall, but it’s so badly charred he can’t find any identifying marks. He takes a careful sniff of the air wafting off it.
The burns smell like balefire.
Drawing his sword again, Rabenholz slices off the corpse’s left hand, then holds it up to his own wragged wrist. The flesh attaches wetly, then–after a burst of focus–healing energy flows down the entire arm and morphs the burned hand into his own. Rabenholz flexes it once, examining it in the pulsing light.
A woman suddenly appears around the corner. She’s dressed in some sort of military uniform and carrying a large–but equally unidentifiable–weapon. She stops, staring at Rabenholz. “Who the hell are you?”
Rabenholz eyes her, then draws himself up regally. “I am Lord Augustus von Rabenholz, [titles titles titles]. Who are you?”
She stares at Rabenholz and the burnt corpse at his feet. After a moment, she shifts the gun to one hand and holds her free wrist up to her mouth. “This is Lt. Dawson in zone-238. I have an intruder here, but not the primary.” Dawson looks at Rabenholz again. There’s a small glint in her eye. Blue electronic symbols briefly spider across her cornea.
Her face blanches. “…It’s a vampire.”
Before Rabenholz can move, she raises the gun, activating it to elicit a slow, threatening whine. “Don’t move! And…don’t look at me!”
Rabenholz steps forward. “I am no threat. Lower your weapon and answer my questions.”
Dawson hesitates. The gun is still raised, but the barrel starts to quiver. “Wh-what are you doing here?”
“That’s a fantastic question. I was dueling a foe and was brought here.”
“A foe?” She frowns. “Who?”
“SHIT.” Keeping the gun trained on him, she speaks into her wrist again. “Captain Sterling, I think you should get down here right now.”
MOUNT DIABLO: GAVRIL
The sound of approaching planes gets steadily louder. All the werewolves at the ritual site stop, sniffing the air. The old woman glares at the sky as if the sound itself offends her.
Perpenna affects a similar scowl. “Deal with this,” he barks at the woman, gesturing to Gavril. The shadows rise to swallow him up and he disappears.
As soon as he does, though, the tendrils binding Gavril disappear as well.
The old woman doesn’t notice, focused as she is on the ritual. She spreads her arms, sweeping the skin-cloak wide, and resumes her chant. Gavril remains motionless on the altar, trying to avoid drawing attention, but he risks turning his head to the side. Under his breath, he makes soft clicking noises toward the treeline. Nothing responds immediately and the only sound in the air is the werewolves’ chant and the distant drone of aircraft engines.
Then, from the shadows nearby, a subtle undulating click in reply.
Gavril immediately dumps energy into Celerity and bolts, leaping off the stone and dashing toward the area where he heard the clicks. The old woman shrieks and the werewolves roar, pouring over the altar and around the bonfire to chase after him–
–But even they hesitate as Neshka suddenly erupts from the treeline, razor-lined jaw spread in a roar.
Gavril throws himself at the saddle, grabbing for purchase against scale and bone as Neshka wheels and snaps at their approaching foes. Finally he seats himself and, turning to face the werewolves, raises a hand.
An icy blast of arctic wind is summoned from the sky, blasting the werewolves head-on. They hold their ground, but it’s enough to temporarily disorient them. Gavil uses the distraction to urge Neshka into the darkness at a full run.
Moments later, with bone-curdling howls, the werewolves follow.
THE PYTHAGORAS: RABENHOLZ
Klaxons continue to echo up and down the corridor as they wait. Lieutenant Dawson keeps her gun trained on Rabenholz, her face drawn with tension. Rabenholz, though, eyes her calmly. “I assume you are also looking for Reinhard Heydrich,” he says finally. He glances at the balefire scorchmarks lining the walls. “I also assume you found him.”
Dawson glares. “He found us. He’s gone.”
“Why? What happened?”
She hefts the gun higher. “You’re gonna have to wait for the captain to explain.”
Footsteps approach from down the corridor. Six men appear from around the bend, all dressed in the same simple grey uniform as Dawson. The last one, though, has a few more sigils on his shoulders and a stern bearing Rabenholz immediately identifies as “officer.”
The officer walks smartly up to Rabenholz, looking him up and down. “Who are you?”
“I am Lord Augustus von Rabenholz, [titles titles titles]. To whom am I addressing?”
“My name is Captain Nathaniel Sterling. This is the Void Engineer Ship Pythagoras. How did you get here?”
“I was in a duel with Reinhard Heydrich. A colleague of mine dealt him a withering blow. Something went wrong and I wound up here.” Rabenholz gestures back down the hall. “My hand seems to be fused inside your bulkhead. I would consider it a great favor if you were to remove it and return my jewelry to me.”
Captain Sterling frowns, then looks Rabenholz over again. One eye flashes the same way Dawson’s did. Sterling’s frown deepens. “You’re a reality deviant. Vampire.”
“Yes, quite right.”
Sterling closes his eyes and exhales slowly. “Always with the vampires….” He makes a sharp gesture in the air. Immediately, the klaxon goes silent. “You were fighting Heydrich? What did you do to him?”
“I cut off his face and jabbed a sword through his skull.” Rabenholz gestures his new-grown hand again. “Please, if you could see to my hand, I would like to continue pursuing him.”
Sterling rolls his eyes and jerks a chin at one of the men. As the man stomps off down the hall, Sterling looks over Rabenholz again, this time more carefully. “Well then. Lord Rabenholz, was it? You want to continue fighting Heydrich?”
“Good, then you’re working for me now.”
Rabenholz regards him, Lieutenant Dawson, and the five other men looming around him, features different but all equally cold. “…I can work with that.”
“I’ve had to work with some of your kind before,” Sterling continues with a grumble. “Most recently, we had to fix some chaos an etherite stirred up in a version of Pluto. But that was child’s-play compared to this.”
Rabenholz nods. “Heydrich is a consierable foe. I have no idea what magic he used to bring me here, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Sterling scowls. “Heydrich isn’t just a literal Nazi. He’s a Nephandi archmage and he’s breached memetic polyreality.”
He taps at a complex polygonal logo embroidered on his uniform. “We’re a division of the Void Engineers, part of the Technocracy. The purview of our organization is to prevent this exact thing from happening and yet Heydrich just cut through my ship like a block of cheese.” He shakes his head. “This is one of the most powerful Nephandius I’ve ever seen, and I have a great deal of experience with them.
“I also attacked him,” Rabenholz says, “With a sword of considerable power. The sword was destroyed, but right now he is as weak as he’s going to get. We must pursue.”
Sterling’s man comes back holding a withered hand and a palmful of rings. Rabenholz accepts the rings from him and puts them onto his regrown hand, carefully arranging them just so. Sterling watches him a few moments, clearly evaluating the weight of his options. Finally, he nods. “…Come with me.”
Sterling turns sharply and disappears down the hall. After a moment Rabenholz follows, escorted by the other mages.
“After he finished dicing up my ship,” Sterling says as they walk, “Heydrich tore a hole in reality itself. The hole breached the barrier protecting this reality from memetic polyreality, and he went through it. Now he’s God-knows where, doing God-knows what.”
“A concerning development,” Rabenholz replies politely.
Sterling eyes him. “Do you even know what memetic polyreality is?”
“Well, clearly, by the latter half of the word, it has something to do with ‘many realities.’ As for the former part…I can assume it somehow connects to what the kids are doing on the Internet these days–”
Sterling stops and turns to Rabenholz. “You’re how old?”
“Four hundred and sixteen. This April.”
“Did they tell stories when you were a kid? King Arthur? Jesus? Samson smashing the Philistines, things like that?”
Rabenholz nods. “They did.”
Sterling hesitates a moment, lips working silently through an explanation before it’s vocalized: “Polyreality is a series of shardrealms around shared, consensual fictitious universes. They operate by their own rules, but there is a Consensus to them. The more people read, listen, watch, or play these fictions, the stronger the Consensus and more defined the shardrealm gets.” He continues walking down the curve of the hall. “Generally these realms are self contained. Unless, of course, someone breaches one and decides to drag something back from a polyreality into the real world.”
“This is what Heydrich has done?”
Sterling stops in front of a wide, flat door. “Not yet, but I can’t think of whatever possible other reason he’d have for breaching it in the first place.”
Sterling punches a few numbers into a keypad next to the door, followed by a few more arcane gestures. The doors slide open with a muffled groan of damaged machinery, but slowly. After a moment, Sterling grunts impatiently and slips through the half-opened gap. Rabenholz follows and finds himself in a massive hangar-bay. The sleek ships within it, though, are shattered and broken, and more scorch-marks dot the wide, polished floor.
“The things in some of those polyrealities would burn the Earth to a cinder,” Sterling says as he crosses the floor toward a control room. “The only thing that stops them from doing so is the fact they’re essentially not really real. Thus, they’re trapped in their memetic realm where they can be real.”
“If they are trapped, how is it they can they get dragged into our reality?” Rabenholz asks, still following.
“Because some of these things can be made real, if enough people believe.” Sterling pauses outside the control room and turns to him. “If Heydrich shows up over Manhattan in the Death Star, people will recognize it. If he rides through Chicago on the back of a Tyrannosaur, people will be terrified, but they’ll still comprehend it. And if he reappears with a host of lizard-people to establish a new world order, most of the public will just assume they’d been right all along.”
Rabenholz stares back evenly. “I’m afraid I don’t understand any of those references.”
Sterling rolls his eyes and enters the room, followed by Rabenholz and the guards. “You may not, but most people do, and that’s the problem. If Heydrich brings back something recognizable enough, something from a story, Consensus–real world Consensus–will warp around it, adapt to accept it, and then it will be real.” He gestures widely to the hangar and bulkheads surrounding them. “Our entire division was founded to stop Nephandi and reality deviants from doing exactly what he is about to do.”
Rabenholz glances at the wreckage dotting the hangar behind them. “So what stopped you this time?”
Sterling glares at him and makes a gesture in the air above a glass tabletop. An image suddenly appears, floating in the air above it. It shows an object with the graceful, swooping lines of what can only be a spaceship with V.E.S Pythagoras painted on the side. In front of the ship is something…odd. A fragmented, fuzzy shape, obscuring the backdrop of stars like a growing migraine attack.
Sterling gestures at the shape. “That is an avatar storm. Heydrich dropped it on the reality breach right after he passed through it.”
“Will this ship not fit through it as well?”
“We can’t follow,” Sterling says grimly. “The storm will tear our avatars apart. We’ve tried mechanical options, sending in drones and probes. Even a nuclear weapon. Nothing.” He turns to Rabenholz. “But you’re a vampire.”
Rabenholz eyes him. “Yes.”
“You don’t have an avatar.”
“I’ve been told that….”
Sterling stares at him a long moment, fingers drumming against the tabletop. “We’ve never tried sending an animate corpse through an avatar storm. Doesn’t come up very often.”
Rabenholz glances at the image. “I can imagine.”
Arms folded behind his back, Sterling slowly circles the table. “The avatar storm is a metaphysical manifestation. It operates on Will.” The capital letter in the word rings heavily through the room. “If you technically have no Will, it might ignore it. Or it might cannibalize you down to your bare essence. No way to know.”
Rabenholz watches Sterling pace, eyes the projected image one more time, then nods. “I will follow Heydrich. But I will need blood first.”
Sterling stops. A painful grimace flashes across his face, but then slowly, belaboredly, he starts rolling up a sleeve. “How much do you need?”
“Fifteen to twenty liters would be quite satisfactory.”
Sterling pauses mid-roll. The tension in the room suddenly spikes. “I don’t have that many crew left,” he says, watching Rabenholz carefully. Behind him, his men almost imperceptibly begin reaching for their guns.
“You can’t synthesize it?” Rabenholz asks calmly.
Sterling’s shoulders relax slightly. Instantly, his men stand down. “Lieutenant Dawson,” he says, “Go down to the medical bay, see if the bio-synthesizers are still working.”
(Chris: “Meanwhile, I would like to use Path of Blood Three.”
Jason: “To do what?”
Chris: “Lower my generation.”)
Over the next hour, the Void Engineers secure a supply of conjured blood, which Rabenholz deems satisfactory. Sterling, though, is the only one who remains in the room while Rabenholz drinks it.
“Heydrich could be anywhere,” Sterling says after Rabenholz downs the last canteen. “We can’t penetrate that mess with our sensors and we cant send warnings to our agents within the polyreality. But that means we won’t be able to track you down to lend any assistance either.”
Rabenholz places the canteen on the table and begins checking through his inventory of rings, talismans, and weapons. “If I end up in a situation where I need assistance, then it is doubtful it would be of any help anyway.”
Once Rabenholz declares himself ready for departure, Sterling and his men load him into a converted stasis pod, neglecting to comment on the fact that it is appropriately enough normally used for preserving dead bodies. The pod is hoisted into a torpedo tube near the hangar bay, then–without further ceremony–launched into space. Inside the pod, Rabenholz feels a period of intense acceleration, followed by weightlessness–
–Then, without warning, a burst of painful light as he flies into the storm.
MOUNT DIABLO: ANSTIS
Anstis eventually comes out of the Rotshriek frenzy caused by drinking the mage’s blood, finding himself alone and almost at the base of the mountain. He stands a moment, disoriented, trying to figure out what to do.
Then his phone rings.
He gropes for it. “Aye?” he answers.
“Captain,” says the melodiously-androgynous voice of Orlando. “How are things this evening?”
Anstis stares up the slopes of the mountain and the distant glow of fire at its tip. “Oh, they go quite well.”
“I wanted to let you know, I expect Joyeuse and Durandal back when you’re done with them. Buffed and shined. Durandal in particular appreciates a good coat of wax. Do take care with them.”
Anstis grins. “I certainly will.”
“I have every faith,” Orlando says with a chuckle, then hangs up.
Anstis tucks his phone away. Something taps his shoulder from behind.
(Me: “…Wait, he’s here?!”
Me: “I’m sorry. Orlando. It.”
Jason: “It? No. They.”)
Two cthuloid monstrosities the size of double-decker busses loom behind him. Leviathans of flesh and tentacle and mouth, their appendages writhe idly against the ground. The one extended to tap on Anstis’s shoulder ends in a fanged maw, which hisses at him as he stares at it. Hundreds of eyes of all sizes blink down at him from the main bodies of the monsters. Behind them stretch a path of torn foliage and broken trees all the way back down the mountain.
Anstis bows to them. The mountains of flesh quiver back.
“Follow me,” Anstis says, then drops into parrot form. He bursts into the air and into an ascending flight path up the mountain. The vozdt follow, crawling along the ground, digging up terrain in their wake.
Until suddenly they obfuscate.
(Me: “Aw, dammit! They have Obfuscate!?”
Me: “Now we gotta, like, tie a balloon to them!!!”)
MOUNT DIABLO: SCOUT
Scout slides through the shadows of the mountain brush, the mage’s last words echoing in her head, drowning out the sounds of distant battle:
Let him come home.
Her first instinct–strange as it is–is that the words are somehow about Tom. But how could that be possible? Tom wasn’t even supposed to go home, he was supposed to come here, to the mountain–
A soft percussion suddenly echoes through the darkness. Hoofbeats, approaching. Scout freezes and melts into the shadows just as a quarter horse appears around a bend in the trail ahead. Doc is mounted atop, a rifle held loosely across his lap. The horse slows to a halt without any apparent signal from him and he looks directly into the shadows where Scout is obfuscated. He nods. “Ms. Scout.”
Sighing resignedly, Scout allows herself to slide back into visibility. “Mr. Holiday.”
“Please, call me Doc. What brings you out on this…fine day?” He glances up at the black sky overhead.
“Your instructions were to make sure Tom arrived at the mountain. But he hasn’t shown up.”
Doc nods slowly, still staring up, as if counting the unseen stars. “That is an unfortunate turn of events. But the situation is fluid, and hard to grasp.” He glances around. “Where are the others, I wonder?”
Scout gestures weakly toward the sound of battle, further up the mountain. “The pirate is here, somewhere. Rabenholz was here but he disappeared with the blonde man. The…evil mage, I think I’ve heard them say?”
Doc nods grimly. “I saw. I’m afraid abominations of the style of Reinhard Heydrich are a bit above my paygrade.” He shifts the rifle on his lap. “I’m just a sporting man.”
Scout eyes the weapon. “Since I didn’t complete our agreement, I assume our deal is off?”
Doc turns to her, staring a long moment. “Your package may have been lost in transition, but from what I can ascertain, it wasn’t forgotten either.” He cocks his head, shifting the shadows on his face cast by his hat. “Why did you come here?”
Scout stares a moment in disbelief. “Because…you told me to–”
“Is that the only reason? Did you not have other instructions?”
A chill settles over her. “I’m not sure what–”
“I know who it is you work for,” Doc continues firmly, silencing her with his gaze. “What it is you work for. What might be watching me right now…through your very eyes.”
The chill creeps higher as a different memory runs through her head: the night Cantor had ambushed her at Esteban’s, and the rage he’d screamed to the night as the bar burned….
Doc examines her face. “He watches us now, I can see it. Searching.”
Her confusion grows, then–in a moment of paralyzing, frozen pain–shatters. She suddenly knows the truth, as certain as if it had been carved into her skin:
Cantor knew of her betrayal. He’d known before she’d even entered the room.
“I have known men like him in my time,” Doc continues. “Living and dead. Did you think you could run from him? That his attention would waver?”
“Thrace said I was being watched,” Scout says, barely able to hide the quaver in her voice. “I…assumed Cantor had other agents watching me, checking up on me.”
“Maybe so. Or maybe–like so much about him–it is exactly as you fear.” He watches her another moment, his horse shifting impatiently underneath him. “So let me show you something he is not expecting.”
In one breathtaking flash of movement, Doc is off the horse and grabbing Scout, holding her arms in an iron grip. She shouts in surprise, defensive reflexes struggling to release themselves, but Doc’s hold is firm. He leans close, staring into her face, then in one movement, reaches up to remove his hat.
Light pierces her, red hot barbs through her eyes and beyond. She screams openly now, writhing in his grip, the demons within her whipped into a panic drive to escape–
“I cannot break his connection,” she hears Doc say, “But I can blind him for a time. Very little time. Use it well. This mountain is about to become the scene of a great fight. If the wrong side wins that fight, everything burns.”
Darkness returns, bringing relief. She collapses to her knees in the dirt, slowly regaining the energy needed to stand. Doc has disappeared. She opens her mouth to call for him, then stops as the realization hits:
Her blood bond is gone.
MOUNT DIABLO: GAVRIL
Neshka barrels downhill through the brush, Gavril clinging tightly to the bone arches of her saddle. Behind them, wolf howls echo; not yet gaining, but not receding either. Gavril gathers his will to begin the summon of another arctic blast of wind–
Neskha suddenly stops, rearing against the reins, and screams. Gavril struggles to calm her, peering around her armored neck to see.
A parrot is flying up the slope of the mountain, over the brush and scattered trees. This is odd enough in itself, but Gavril’s gaze is drawn to the things following it, just barely hidden under the shimmer of obfuscate. Vozdt–so massive they could only be Joyeuse and Durandal, the famed Swords of Orlando–writhing and pulling at the terrain as they haul themselves after the parrot, moving faster than anything such size has a right to move.
The parrot squawks as it sees Gavril and banks higher. The vozdt behind it slow, momentarily uncertain. Neshka stands frozen, sides fluttering in panic. Gavril stares up at the monstrosities. Through their veil, a hundred hungry eyes stare back.
In a chorus of growls and snarls, the werewolves suddenly burst from the trees behind him, then skid to a stop. The stench of sweat and blood fills the clearing, melding with the air of sickness and rot pouring off the vozdt. Claws and spines flex as the two hosts of monsters stare at each other, with Gavril in the middle, and a lone parrot circling overhead….
A roar breaks the standoff, but it’s not from either side. Gavril looks up just in time to see a plane thunder into view, strafing low across the hillside. Moments later, muffled concussive bursts dot the landscape as dropped canisters explode all around them. Aerosolized silver nitrate boils out into the air.
Chaos erupts. Werewolves throw themselves in all directions–some away from the silver, some toward the vozdt. Joyeuse and Durandal meet the latter with a nightmarish array of talons, tendrils, and razor-lined maws. Neshka dances back from the fray and Gavril lets her, momentarily stunned.
Until two direwolf-form werewolves–half-blinded by the silver-ridden air–tear themselves from the chaos and lunge at him.
Instincts kick in. Neshka lunges forward to meet them, closing her jaws around one wolf’s head and whipping it aside, snapping the neck. As she’s occupied, the other wolf gathers itself for a leap. Gavril grabs his sword just as the wolf smashes into him. The two tumble off Neshka’s back, slamming into the dirt in a frenzy of blade and teeth. Gavril hacks at the stinking fur while holding the jaws away from his face–
Until Neshka barrels into the wolf, knocking it aside.
The wolf rolls to its feet, snarling, its half-crazed attention now focused on the pseudosaurian monstrosity circling it. Neshka hisses back, foreclaws spread wide. Before either can attack, though, another nitrate canister lands and explodes nearby, releasing a new influx of silver gas. The wolf shrieks, then turns and flees into the darkness. Overwhelmed by the predatory drive to pursue, Neshka follows, leaving Gavril alone in the dirt.
The battle has shifted, moving further downslope, away from the dissipating clouds of silver. Gavril moves to get up, brushing at his cloak, then stops as he hears heavy footsteps behind him.
A crinos-werewolf, approaching from upwind, untouched by the battle. It growls low as Gavril notices it.
Then, before he can react, it rams a stake through his chest.
MOUNT DIABLO: ANSTIS
Anstis circles high over the silver-nitrate cloud as it settles over the area. Real birds erupt from the trees below, climbing toward clear air, but many fall back to earth as the gas overwhelms their delicate respiratory structures.
(Chris: “Yeah, this hasn’t really been an ecologically-sound move.”
Jason: “This whole mountain is going to be a superfund site when we’re done with it.”
Chris: “But on the other hand, Rabenholz more than anyone probably follows the adage, ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’”)
The gas isn’t thick, but it’s enough to obstruct the view of the battle in the dim ambient light, so eventually Anstis sacrifices the safety of altitude to circle lower and check on the progress of the vozdt.
Joyeuse and Duandal are living up to their expectations. Blood and flesh fly through the air as they writhe and attack. Enraged werewolves dart around their bulks, snapping at whatever structures they can find, but those too slow or unwise enough to dash away again are grabbed by the flailing tendrils and pulled into massive, gnashing mouths. Other appendages wield entire tree-trunks as weapons, scything them through the milling packs as smaller openings in the flesh shriek defiance. The sounds of the creatures and the howls of the wolves are a hellish choir of rage and destruction rolling across the mountainside.
Pleased with himself, Anstis circles higher to once again reach an altitude of safety–
–Then a munitions-blast almost knocks him out of the sky.
Anstis falters briefly in the air, instantly healing his singed feathers, and scans the ground. Everything below is organic with no sign of complex weaponry. Confused, he wheels to scan the sky instead.
A four-masted ship is sailing high above the clouds of smoke and silver, mist pouring over its deck like waves, its bow slicing the air like a saber. Any confusion from seeing this strange sight is rapidly forgotten, though, as Anstis sees the figure laughing from the foreword decks.
(Jim: “Son of a bitch–”)
“Anstis!” Flowers shouts to the air. “I told ye you had no conception of what me navy was now!” The ship rolls on unseen wind currents, turning its broadside guns toward Anstis. Anstis wheels around to avoid the blast–
(Jim: “…Double botch.”)
–But a gust of wind blasts him backward, direct into the line of fire.
Anstis shifts into mist-form just as the cannons discharge a volley. Cannonballs sail through the air, stirring a new upwelling of silver gas to obscure the ship. By the time the gas settles again, silence has fallen and the ship has disappeared. Still a sparkling mist himself, Anstis hovers, confused.
“Anstis!” comes the distant echo of Flower’s voice on the wind, from all directions at once.. “Come out boy! Have you learned nothing?”
The Anstis-mist twists on itself in irritation.
(Jim: “Fucking Ravnos.”
Me: “…Why you looking at me when you say that!?!”)
MOUNT DIABLO: SCOUT
Scout surveys the battle from a further slope of the mountain. Silver nitrate roils over the landscape like fog on the moors, and deep within the gloom the massive forms of the vozdt flail like living extensions of the mountains itself. Howls, and even occasional bursts of gunfire, echo through the air under the unnatural night sky as she watches, unmoved.
(Me: “I…call Fatima.”)
The phone rings a few times before being answered. “Speak,” Fatima’s voice greets her.
“There’s a possibility that our arrangement may come to a head soon,” Scout says.
There’s a long pause. In it, Scout can almost imagine Fatima’s breath increasing. “Where are you? What has happened?”
“Mount Diablo. I seem to find myself temporarily…unrestrained.” The sudden lack of a blood bond was almost intoxicating, as if a pain she’d had for so long she’d forgotten how to feel it had suddenly disappeared. But as Doc had warned, something within her knew that a force of that strength could only recede so far, and for so long. “New opportunities against my master may arise soon. Be ready.”
“I am always,” Fatima says, then hangs up.
The battle shifts slowly closer as the werewolves pull up-wind–away from the silver nitrate–and the vozdt follow. Scout tucks her phone away and moves to retreat herself when a sudden snap of a stick whirls her attention around.
A werewolf is approaching through the trees, fur matted and blooded, and eyes red with a mixture of pain and anger. It growls as it sees her, hunching over in preparation to lunge. Scout freezes–torn between attempting an illusion or grabbing for her knife in an all-out counter attack–but before she can decide the wolf tenses to pounce–
–Then suddenly falls forward to the dirt, exhaling its last growl in one dying chuff. Even in the gloom, the reason is immediately obvious: a two foot silver dagger embedded in the back of its skull. Scout’s gaze, though, is torn toward the sound of slow, rhythmic applause and the sight of a figure stepping from the shadows.
He steps over the body of the werewolf, patronizing gaze fixated on her with a smile. “My wayward childe. How strong you have become.”
Scout freezes, all plans for evasiveness or attack suddenly evaporating in panic. He knows, he knows he knows he knows–
“What have you been doing?” Cantor asks, still approaching. “With whose council have you take, that you should seek to defy me? After all that you have seen of what becomes of those who defy.”
Her last instinct kicks in: deference. She stares down at the torn dirt, metaphorically willing herself invisible, though she knows that with him this close and this focused on her he’d know instantly if she tried to disappear for real.
He stops in front of her. “Look upon me, childe. What do you see?”
Slowly, she forces her gaze up. He’s in dark, simple shirt and slacks today; tailored, though not for him. His smile is still beatific but she can feel something just beyond the intensity of his gaze, something waiting to lend fire. And hunger. Though she flinches instinctively at the thought, her blood bond remains unnaturally silent.
“Why are you here?” she whispers.
Cantor’s gaze flickers with something she’d rarely ever seen in him: surprise. “So many questions. You have become bold.” He looks her over, but before she begin to worry about how he might punish her for her audacity, the unsettlingly warm smile is back again. “Foolish girl, do you not know that I will always be here? Wherever you go. Why have you fled from me, my wayward childe?”
He must feel it too, she thinks. The broken bond. So why hasn’t he reacted? Her nerves sing, telling her to do something, anything besides just standing there and waiting for him to judge her. But even without the bond, she knows any physical action against him on her own is futile. Every trick, every skill she has, he already knows, because he gave them to her.
But if Doc is right, for now–for once–he can’t see into her mind.
Drawing on an old form of illusion learned in her deeper childhood, Scout forces herself to cry. “It was Rabenholz.”
Cantor lifts an eyebrow. “The Ventrue. He poisoned your mind?”
Scout nods, choking out a few sobs. “He saw my desires and convinced me that helping him against you would get me what I wanted. I sought to be free.” She looks down again. “But I was wrong.”
“More so than you know. Did I not instruct you against the poisonous lies of those beyond?”
Still staring down, she nods. “I thought I could handle it.”
“I did too. Was I wrong?”
She shakes her head.
He steps forward, gripping her arms gently, but firmly. “Then how come we to stand here, oh prodigal daughter?”
She resists the urge to flinch away. “He’s been manipulating me subtly, for longer than I realized. He can change his strength at will and was finally able to get past my defenses.”
“Yes. Rabenholz has great power. It courses through him like a fine drug. One can smell it on him.” Cantor looks across the landscape. “But he is not here. He is not anywhere. He has passed beyond my sight.” He looks down at her again. His fingers tighten. “Yet you and your betrayal remain.”
Her mind races. “Yes, but his…thrall lingers over me.”
His knife is suddenly in his hand, flashing the sigil on the blade that matches her own. “Then shall I cut it from you? What else will come spilling forth if I do? Treason? Betrayal? Plans of patricide?”
Forcing a look of fearful submission onto her face, she looks up at him. “Or you could use me against him.”
Cantor’s patronizing smile tilts in pity. “And what use are you against him if his Will can overcome yours?”
A panicked shudder grips her spine. This is it, she thinks. Instinct screams at her to reach for her knife and do something, anything to stave off the inevitable. For the first time, there’s no blood bond to stop her–
But something else freezes her muscles instead. Fear, and panic, and–most unwelcomely–some amount of shame.
Cantor sighs. “Petulant childe, I have been so forebearing with you. Forgiven so many tresspasses. All in the hopes that you would one day reward all my efforts with the glory that I saw within you.”
“I…want that too,” she chokes out.
“Do you? Are you even master of your own desires? Do you not wish to take your knife, the one I gave you, and plunge it into my heart?”
The shudder climbs higher, now trembling her arms still clenched in his grip. Cantor, though, merely chuckles….
…And pulls her against him in an embrace.
“Your forgiveness,” he murmurs, “should you earn it, will be a simple matter. Find Rabenholz. Root him out from the worlds to which he’s fled and bring him to me. Alive, and unspoilt. And thus in one stroke I shall have what I desire from him. And I shall know that I will have what I desire from you.”
Scout freezes again, this time in confusion, too perplexed to even be nauseated at the subtextual implications. Cantor strokes the back of her head, then releases her. “You have until the stroke of the sword to retrieve him to me.”
She stares. He knows…and he’s letting me go? “W-Where will you be?”
“Where I must.” Cantor pulls her close again, this time to gently kiss her forehead. “Bring him home.”
Scout’s mind reels a moment in shock at this echo of Mwonge’s words, but the disorientation is rapidly overwhelmed by a wave of force emanating from Cantor’s hands. She cries out in pain, though no sound emerges. There’s a tearing, rending feeling as if her soul was being ripped from the world, a burst of energy as if exploding–
Then…she’s somewhere else.
(Me: “Wait, what did he do?”
Jason: “He sent you after Rabenholz.”
Me: “How…did he fucking do that?”
Jason: “You mean, how did Cantor breach the walls of memetic polyreality? He didn’t, someone breached them first, for him.”
Paul wakes up on ashy ground. Instead of the dry, scorched earth of Erebus, though, this dirt is wet and the ash smells stale. He opens his eyes and sighs in relief as he recognizes his location: the remains of the carin on Strawberry Hill, in the middle of Golden Gate Park.
There’s a soft moan next to him. Marcus is there too, stirring awake, also looking thankfully in one piece.
“Do you think we’re back in the real world again?” Paul asks.
“We’d better be,” Marcus groans as he sits up.
Overhead, the sky is still engulfed in black. Paul checks the time. It’s barely been half a day since they were last in the Black Spiral Hive. Thinking of that, though, reminds him of why they went to the Hive–and everything after–so he immediately tries calling Sophia.
After a few tense rings, she picks up. “Paul!? Where are you?”
Paul sighs in relief. “Sophia, thank god you’re okay. We’re in the park.”
Sophia makes an equally-relieved sigh. “I thought you might have gotten eaten.”
“No. Though I think I understand your werewolf situation a little bit better.”
“That you’re doomed to fail because your leadership is incompetent and you’re going to be judged unfairly no matter what. I am very sorry.”
Sophia laughs weakly. “It’s alright. At least everyone is alright for now–”
“BECAUSE WE STRUCK DOWN THE JORMUNGANDER, WHILE THE WEAK QUAVERED IN THE DARKNESS!” a voice suddenly booms over the line in the background behind her.
Paul stops. “…Where are you? Who is that?”
“I…I think I’m in the Presidio, and there’s another vampire here.” She pauses. “He’s–”
“–HELGI ISARNBJORN OGENHERDI!!!” The now-familiar voice booms, then launches into the cadence of an epic tale of battle.
“Oh,” Paul says. “Mr. Helgi. I’m glad to hear he’s okay. Is there anyone else there with you?”
“Not that I can see,” she says, pitching her voice louder to be heard over Helgi’s oration.
“Okay. Well, I need to get back to Tesseract. My presentation on the solar tech is tomorrow night, assuming that the world doesn’t end before then.” He glances at the sky. “And that this darkness doesn’t dampen satellite reception.”
“Well, if there’s anything I know about the apocalypse, it’s that it’s never convenient.”
At the mention of apocalypse, Paul remembers the other reason he called. “Hey, after the Hive, do you know where the cub went?”
“Uh…noo….” Sophia says with the clear tone of Teenager Lies.
Paul frowns suspiciously but decides to drop it. “Well hopefully wherever she is, she’s out of harm’s way.’
Sophia sighs. “I hope so too, Paul.” She hangs up.
Paul next tries calling Tom, but his line goes directly to voicemail. Putting his phone aside a moment, he goes over to Marcus, currently sitting on some rocks at the edge of the cairn, looking out over the city. “Hey Marcus, did you hear? Helgi is okay.”
“So it would seem,” Marcus says without turning around. “Tell your werewolf friend to take care, sometimes the telling of his sagas can last days.” He stares at the distant downtown skyline a long moment. “I suppose it would be superfluous to ask what in the world just happened.”
“Well, it seems that I talked some werewolf god out of killing us. I don’t know how.”
“That wasn’t a werewolf god.” Marcus hesitates. “Or maybe it was, what do I know.”
Paul shrugs. “The place did seem kind of werewolf-themed, what with the pits of silver and all–”
“Figures, doesn’t it,” Marcus mumbles. “I made the occasional sacrifice to Cerberus back in the day. Didn’t seem to have done much.”
“Who knows, maybe that tipped the balance to get us out.”
“You tipped the balance,” Marcus says, tone suddenly curt. “Not some damn offering….” He trails off, then gestures off to the distance. “Look there, can you see?”
Paul follows his gaze to the east, seeing only city lights and more darkness beyond. “See what?”
“The top of the eastern mountain. Mount Diablo. It’s burning. Gods only know what that portends. Another horrific abomination I’m sure.” Marcus stares in silence a moment. “Do you remember what you said, back when we first met? That the vampire world was large and overwhelming?”
“Yes, well I was only recently turned at the time–”
“I am beginning to think you were right. We spend eons building our plans, our empires, thinking ourselves masters of our own destinies. Until it becomes clear we are not.” Marcus turns to peer up at him, eyes flat black and cold. “What will you do now, Paul Lightbringer, Speaker to Gods?”
Paul shifts. “Well, I have something much more terrifying to face.”
“A public audience.” Paul pulls out his phone again, this time to check emails and message Gates to send a car.
Marcus rolls his eyes, but the cold in their depths softens somewhat. “Well. I should go rescue your werewolf from Helgi.” He gets up off the rock. “Paul,” he says seriously. “For whatever part you had in all this. Thank you–”
Paul suddenly holds up a hand. From their position high on the hill, he can also see north to the Golden Gate bridge. His Auspex-enhanced vision isn’t as good as Marcus’s, but something on the deck of the bridge has caught his attention: flashes of what looks like gunfire. He focuses harder.
National Guard humvees are gathered in the toll plaza on the south end, guns aimed and firing at what’s approaching from the north. An absolute tide of monstrosities is pouring down the roadway–werewolves, fomori, and other unidentifiable things, united in a twisted surge toward the city. As he watches, the gathered host reaches the first of the humvees, overturning them easily as toys. At the front of the crowd marches a massive hyena-headed Spiral Dancer, howling and gesturing commands to the things ranked behind. Even with the distance and the surrounding chaos, Paul recognizes her as the same Spiral Dancer he keeps encountering–the one allied with Reinhard Heydrich. Only now she’s armed with a whip made of chain and barbed wire.
Marcus and Paul stare in shocked silence a few moments. “Well,” Paul says finally. “At least we got their attention.”
Paul’s phone suddenly rings. He looks down, expecting to see Gate’s ID, but instead it’s a number he doesnt recognize. For some reason, emojis are embedded in it as well. He answers tentatively. “Hello?”
“Paul Stewart!?” a familiar teutonic voice greets him. “Zis is Dr. von Natsi!!”
“Ah. I am glad to hear you survived the Hive too, Doctor. How are you doing?”
“Mr. Stewart, do you at zis moment have several hundred angry verewolves and faceless hordes of indescribable monsters attempting to invade your city?”
Paul and Marcus trade a glance. “Uh, yes?”
“Ja, I thought zis might be ze case. Mr. Stewart, I require your assistance with a matter zat may help vith zis.”
Paul glances at the distant bridge again. “Name it.”
von Natsi hesitates. “Vell…I am loathe to ask because I think it might be…ridiculous. It violates all ze norms of experimental science and even vith my excessive calculations constitutes quite a considerable risk.”
“If it helps with the werewolves, I am listening,” Paul says grimly.
Although he is unseen on the other end of the line, the size of von Natsi’s grin is clearly audible as he speaks the following words, “Mr. Stewart, help me activate…ze golem.”
Jim: “Is Paradox reduced right now because the city is in chaos?”
Jason: “Yes, and because no one can communicate to the outside world. Don’t get me wrong, Paradox will still fuck you, but probably not as hard. That is why Dr. von Natsi thinks this is a good moment to bring out the golem for real.”
Epilogue Author’s Note:
Just a head’s up, as part of my creative re-editing, I’m doing something unique the next few segments. As might be apparent, Rabenholz and Scout’s are going to overlap for a while in kind of a unique set of circumstances. The tone of it is different from the main threads and jumping back and forth between them breaks the flow somewhat. So what I’m going to do is finish the main threads in this, the “Fire on the Mountain” chapter, then mass-dump all the Rabenholz and Scout scenes into their own chapter, called “Rabenholz and Scout’s Excellent Adventure.” Then when things realign I will interlace them back with the main threads once again.
END OF NIGHT