Owls & Ashes

Tipping the Dragon's Scales

Ordo Dracul research taxes body, mind, spirit . . .

Jan manages, barely, to keep his expression carefully neutral as Rickard adds another tome to the stack in front of him. The assembled volumes are as tall as his forearm, and despite their varied age and bindings, are obviously thick with pages, each crammed with handwriting or print.

His superior grins as he observes Jan’s poker face. “That oughta hold ya awhile,” he says. “No deadline as such, but . . .”

“Yeah, I know,” Jan replies, still staring at the pile as if to get it to give up its secrets on its own. “The faster, the better.”

Those of your blood who join the Order take eagerly to their studies, Doctor—no, Master—Kaintz told him around the time of his swearing in. But so many of them falter after awhile. Perhaps a quirk of your nature. Initiate Rickard has his own . . . political . . . excuses, but you have not that luxury.

Kaintz has said nothing more on that subject as directly as he did that night, but any hint, even an idea that the Master might still be leveling that critical an eye on the new student sets Jan—and the Beast—on edge. Final exam time in Hell, every night.

He lets out a sound between sigh and growl, and teases out the bottom-most book from the heap, careful not to crack its old yellowed binding. He begins to leaf through the pages, squinting at the decades (or centuries) old cramped handwritten script . . .

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Despite their massed, thrumming white noise, the dozens of washing machines in their wash, rinse and spin cycles fail to drown out the godawful open-mic performance at the Brain Wash bar-cum-laundromat. Even thirty feet away, he can tell one of the machines’ bearings are burning out, adding a barely-audible but sharp note to the mix: high, scalpel-edged, garrote-thin.

Jan raises his gaze up to the bearded lumberjack-appareled hipster on the stool in front of the microphone, voice scratchy and reedy at the same time, slapping a loose rhythm on the side of his battered guitar in between roughly twanging an excuse for a melody from the strings.

The room thrums with soft heartbeats too, from the other publicans here to drink or wash or both, most of them ignoring the performance. Jan simply waits, a tall glass of pear cider untouched in front of him, slowly losing its carbonation in streams of tiny bubbles, sweating away its cool in wet beads on the glass. The faint scent of blood under warm flesh all around sets the Beast to stirring, prowling back and forth inside Jan; to it (and to him as well) the cider has about as much appeal as the condensation on the glass, or the mat, or the table upon which it rests.

The urge to open the performer’s throat, meanwhile, to stop his singing in a wet gurgle and feed, builds in fine layers like dust on an untouched book, or snowfall on a slope or the green-and-white mat soaking up the condensation like spilled blood into a carpet—

Stop it, fucker.

Jan snarls silently at the Beast, at himself, then looks up as a pair of footfalls stop on front of his table. Hoodie, baggy jeans, patchy young stubble and postadolescent acne scars.

“Hey man, how’s it been?” The newcomer says as he hooks a chair out with one foot and seats himself opposite Jan. He leans a battered skateboard against the table, rummaging in his backpack as he continues. “Found the stuff you asked about . . .”

Jan has already reached into a pocket, pulling out a small wad of cash in a battered envelope. His tablemate takes it with a grin, exchanging it for a similar envelope, but with very different contents. “You have fun with that, right?”

“Yeah. You too, thanks,” the Kindred tells him, already rising from his seat. “I’ve gotta go.”

He spares the cider a glance, nods his head to the guy in the hoodie.

“Drink’s on me.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Seated on her couch, perched nervously at its edge, Ashley watches Jan as he sits opposite her on the coffee table, unpacking the phlebotomy kit from his medical bag.

“I need to take more samples,” he says flatly, avoiding her gaze.

“But . . . again? This is like the third time you’ve—I thought you, um . . .”

He raises his eyes from his work, staring up at her and she falls silent for a moment, but as soon as he returns to unpacking tubing, needles, vials, and tourniquet, she speaks up again.

“I mean, can’t you do like you usually do? It’s been . . . like weeks since—“

“No,” he hisses softly.

“Just a little?” she pleads.

“No.” This time the word comes out as a rumble between clenched teeth as the Beast snarls in rebuke at the prey’s entreaties. It snaps and snarls within, goaded at two fronts by Jan’s hunger and by the girl’s begging.

“I need a pure sample,” he says as he looks up to her again, teeth bared. “It can’t be . . . contaminated by anything. Hold out your arm.” She does so, slowly, reluctantly drawing up her sleeve. “There, now make a fist, squeeze a few times . . .”

Jan busies himself with the tourniquet, leaning in closer, and Ashley trembles, lifting her wrist higher to his face. He growls low in his throat and closes his fingers around her limb, pushing it down again, quickly jabbing the needle into the crook of the girl’s elbow.

“Ow, fuck!”

“Stay still, dammit!” Jan’s voice rasps through clenched teeth, and he bares his teeth, snarling louder. Less than an arm’s length away he can feel her heart beat faster at the display, as her blood floods with neurochemicals and other substances in fight-or-flight response. He needs her denied and afraid this time, he reminds himself, but it still feels wrong; this casual, intentional brutality. Cortisol, adrenaline, norepinephrine . . .

This close he can smell the blood just under her skin, drawn through the needle and plastic tubing and vials as he collects the samples. The Beast wants to tear the tops off of each one, empty them into its throat, then open her up just as swiftly—

Fuck you! Back off, fucker—Jan snarls at himself, and Ashley jerks back a little, arm still held tight in the Kindred’s grasp.

“Oh, God, no,” the girl gasps. “Please . . . please, you’re . . .”

His fingertips have elongated into black razor points, each claw like those of a big cat or predatory bird, but subtly serrated; their tips are etching little furrows into the plastic vial he holds in one hand, dimpling the soft skin of the girl’s arm in his grip. In the mirror over the couch, his reflection glares back at him, skin chalky, eyes wide and dark and reflecting a carmine sheen.

With an effort of will, he shoves the vials into the medical bag, then releases her arm, quickly slapping a thick wad of gauze over the crook of her elbow, and yanking the needle free.

“Cover that, now,” Jan tells her brusquely. He quickly discards the needle into a sharps container, closing its cap and hiding even the faintest scent of any traces of blood within.

As he glares at his hands, flexing the claws, they gradually draw back into his flesh, his fingertips returning to normal, and the Beast slinks back into its den. It wants out again, and it’s getting harder and harder to deny. Part of him doesn’t even want to stop it.

Maybe we can compromise . . .

He can’t tell if the feeling of anticipation at that thought is his own, or of the Beast, or both.

Jan packs up the kit, watching Ashley cradle her arm, reddish marks from his fingertips already showing in the skin, soon to turn to bruises.

“Next time,” he tells her. “Next time. I promise.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Shadowed in a back corner of the bar, Jan watches the crowd, ignoring the drink before him in favor of another one, finally fixing his gaze on one of the girls nearby, one at the edge of her handful of friends. He narrows his eyes, watching her, feeling the Beast tensing inside, waiting.

She turns her head, feeling the weight of his gaze, and as his eyes meet hers, just before he looks away, he feels it surge out, feral, hungry, like a hunting animal leaping on prey. Even this far away, under the thudding of club music and the noise of the crowd, he can hear her heartbeat speed up, smell the change in her sweat through smoke and massed flesh, see the faint flush in her cheeks in the dimness as she looks toward him and, drawn by the touch of the Beast’s predatory nature, takes a hesitant step closer . . .

Some time later, Jan leaves, still un-fed. Not every hunt is a success, even one swayed that easily. He glances at the scrap of paper with her phone number, crushes it into a wad in his palm, shoves it idly into a pocket, even if he probably won’t ever try it.

As he steps out of the club, a familiar voice calls to him over one shoulder—accompanied by that familiar sensation, like hairs raising on the back of the neck, like the sound of a predator’s snarl in the underbrush.

“Hullo, brother-dear!” Miranda’s voice. But someone else using the words.

Fuck.

He turns, sees her leaning against the wall outside the club, giving him that familiar impish grin his sister shows now and then. But the golden-yellow flash in the eyes give it away. The Sixth, it called itself, still joyriding friends and family. He can almost imagine something smoky and birdlike, talons resting on Miranda’s shoulders.

“Nice night for it, huh?” Jan says through gritted teeth.

“Ohh, what a sour face, big brother, little beastie,” Miranda— the Sixth —croons. She— it —reaches up with one hand to pat his cheek, and he jerks back a step. A few passersby detour around the interaction between the pair, instinctively wanting no part of this drama; it’s strictly for the crazy twosome. “You look hungry. Growing boy’s not getting enough to eat?”

He snarls at it, wordless. Miranda’s face twists into another grin, this one edging toward a rictus, as her hand lowers to her side. Still, her head tilts, and her hand drifts up again, stroking her bared throat.

“Just a little sip, perhaps?” It says in her voice. “You know your little sister would never refuse you.”

Jan’s teeth grind together with a sound like bones cracking. Miranda’s grin widens further at the noise.

“And, ahhh, this skin is so soft,” the Sixth tells him in a voice barely above a whisper, as Miranda’s feet carry her nearer to him, sidling closer in little edging steps, like an owl on a branch. “Oh, what big teeth you have, big brother. Wouldn’t it just be sooo easy to open, open, open . . .“

“Shut up, you fucking—“

Jan’s snarled rejoinder cuts off as Miranda’s eyes widen, yellow-golden lambent under the streetlights, and the Sixth’s gaze fastens on him. The weight of its presence pours out slowly, seemingly blotting out everything else, like spread wings shadowing the sun—or moon. Even towering over Miranda, he feels as if something much larger is stooping over him, about to swoop in, talons spread . . .

“Ssshhh,” it hisses to him, eyes narrowing and teeth gleaming white in a broad, mirthless smile. It’s not showing its teeth in humor now. “Lest I do something you’ll regret.”

Jan edges slowly away from Miranda, as the Beast inside suddenly cowers, wanting to flee, to hide, to get out of the open and into safety, how it thought it was an apex predator in the face of this it cannot conceive. It watches him, Miranda’s face relaxing into a gentler, but still twisted, smile.

“Good boy,” Miranda’s voice rasps, in imitation of that raven in the YouTube video he once showed her, so long ago. “You’re learning . . . your schoolmaster must be so very, very proud, hmm?”

Jan says nothing.

“I was . . . in the neighborhood,” the Sixth says. “Could feel you . . . near.” Miranda’s head tilts toward the door of the club. “Promising, hmm? You just need some refinement, and paths will open, open, open, for you.”

“Get away from her.” Jan tries to make the words firm, confident, to put the Beast’s teeth into his speech, but it comes out in a tiny whisper. The Beast silently tugs at him to run, to flee, you stupid Man, and he edges backward another step.

Miranda’s eyes track the movement, yellow flickering in them and her lips stretching into a broad Jack-o’-lantern grin full of good cheer.

“You could be so, so, so much more, big brother, little beastie,” the Sixth whispers in her voice, and takes a little hopping step toward him again.

Jan’s resolve breaks, and he takes another big step backward, then turns and runs, the Beast’s urge to seek shelter taking over fully.

“All you have to do,” Miranda’s voice floats after him, “is ask . . .”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

“Okay, so run it by me one more time.” Joseph looks over all the notes and samples Jan has set out on the kitchen table.

“It’s simple. I’ve already done the groundwork,” Jan begins. “I just want to do one more test on a human . . . volunteer.”

“What’s this gonna do?”

Jan carefully draws up a clear fluid from one of the ampoules into a syringe, draws it free of the rubber membrane, and stabs it through the top of the ampoule of centrifuged plasma. The name Ashley is drawn in Sharpie on the label.

“It’ll be like . . . that thing that happens when you concentrate and . . . get stronger, or faster.” He pushes the plunger, injects its contents into the ampoule, then holds the two in one hand, shaking briskly to mix everything.

“What’s in it for me?” Joseph looks skeptically over Jan’s preparations. Outside the kitchen, the cats and the dog are all huddled together in the opposite corner of the living room.

Jan draws up the mixed fluids into the syringe again, carefully eyeing the measurement.

“Well, for one,” he stops and looks over at Joseph. “You get a drink.”

He has the ghoul’s full attention now. Joseph sits down and holds out one broad arm, inside tilted upward in proper fashion.

“Mila’s cool with this?”

Jan nods, places a fresh, sharp needle on the syringe, still capped, and sets it down, bringing out alcohol prep pads and tourniquet.

“Alright, stay still . . .”

As he smoothly sets the needle and tugs back the plunger, both watch intently, fixing for a moment on the little bloom of crimson at the bottom of the syringe’s barrel. Booting up, registering, flashing, whatever term he or Mila or anyone else knows, here comes the fix.

Joseph’s eyes widen, pupils dilating a bit, skin flushing, and he grins suddenly, then looks up at Jan.

“Sssshit,” he says, rubbing his arm as Jan pulls the needle free. The pinprick heals over in an instant. “What’s in this again?”

“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” Jan says deadpan. “Seriously, though, I’d be spilling Order secrets. But it’s got a mix of things: blood proteins, a mild psychoactive compound, some other stuff I can’t tell you about.”

“I, uh, I feel a little weird,” Joseph says, looking up at Jan as he packs up the kit. “This isn’t gonna hurt me, right?”

Jan shrugs. “Probably not, no.” I think. I hope.

“Do I, uh . . .”

Jan keeps his face aggressively neutral as he holds out his wrist, beginning to press a thumbnail into the skin. The Beast is already hungry; giving away some of his own Vitae is a stupid thing to do, especially when this isn’t even his ghoul, it would be stupid even if he were full, even if it was his ghoul . . .

“Yeah. But use some of it . . . for the experiment.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Doctor Kaintz peers over the tops of his spectacles as he lifts his gaze from the assembled notes on the desk before him. His eyes narrow speculatively as Jan stands patiently on the other side of the desk, almost at attention in the Master’s study. In one of the wingback chairs nearby, Rickard picks at his nails, seemingly oblivious to the matter.

“And your results have been consistent?” Kaintz raises one eyebrow.

Jan shifts his feet, steels himself, and speaks up. “Yes, Master. After initial inert sample tests, and a live subject, I have repeat-tested it upon myself. It’s the same each time.”

“Hm,” the Dragon holds up a hand to forestall the rest of Jan’s prepared speech. “Quite promising work, Supplicant. Perhaps a bit simplistic . . .”

Jan holds himself carefully in place, despite the Beast’s hackles raising, bristling at the criticism. Keep calm, keep calm . . .

“. . . But of use to the Order nonetheless, for even this tiny improvement is a step in the right direction toward the Great Work.” Doctor Kaintz’ wintry pale-blue eyes turn to the paperwork, scanning a few more lines.

“Thank you, Master.” Jan continues to wait, inwardly impatient, but not daring to move a muscle.

Kaintz closes the folder and tilts his head up to fix his gaze upon the young Gangrel once more. “Have you anything further you would like to add?”

Jan avoids looking into the doctor’s eyes, but carefully stares at the point between them, at the bridge of the doctor’s nose where the doctor’s spectacles rest. He can almost make out his reflection in the polished metal, caught in miniature.

“Any further insights, or discoveries?” The Doctor’s voice is calm, soothing in contrast to the icy, drilling gaze.

For a moment, all Jan can hear is the echoing screech in his mind, and the Beast bares its teeth at the memories: smoke, scorched blood, brilliant ruby gleam of road flare, the girl from the club run by Sascha’s boss. The smoky black shape in the air, yellow eyes gleaming out of a fist-sized jar full of roiling darkness. And nights before that, Miranda, her eyes full of yellow light.

Behind him, Rickard’s fingernails make dull bony clicking and scraping sounds, like a great cat sharpening its claws. Pick. Pick-pick. Pick. Pick.

Jan shakes his head, chooses his words carefully.

“No, Master,” he says, still staring into the tiny reflection between the Doctor’s eyes. “I have nothing to add to this . . . research.”

The elder Mekhet’s eyes narrow just a hair. Jan does not move, though the Beast wants desperately to throw itself to the floor, bare its throat. He knows, he knows, he knows.

“There is always more to add, Mister Farkas,” Doctor Kaintz admonishes him. Over Jan’s shoulder, the leather of the wingback chair creaks softly as Rickard finally shifts posture, brushing at the tips of his fingers. “You simply do not see it yet.”

Jan bows his head. “Yes, Master. Of course, Master.”

“For now, Scribe of Fury,” the Doctor intones, emphasizing the new rank,”You are dismissed.”

Jan’s eyes widen as he raises his head. Even with such a small number of the Order here, the promotion is at least a pleasant formality. But, he also realizes, one with more eventual responsibilities to match the title. Shit.

“Thank you, Master . . .” he says, bowing deeply, and backing away from the desk.

As he turns to depart, Rickard gives him a little knowing grin, teeth gleaming in his red beard, amusement in his eyes.

Didn’t think ya’d get out that easy, didja, smartass? Rickard’s expression seems to say.

Jan exits the study, closing the door behind him quietly. Outside in the empty hallway, he at last lets his expression twist briefly into one of mingled relief, horror, and hysterical amusement, before covering his mouth with one hand and quickly walking away. His body would be shuddering with adrenaline overload at each breath—if he still needed to breathe.

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