Owls & Ashes

Most of the Way to Midnight
Mila's Playlist, Part 1

1. Jesus & Mary Chain: Head On

2. The Gun Club: Stranger in Our Town

3. Nick Cave & Birthday Party: Deep in the Woods

4. Joy Division: Day of the Lords

5. Killing Joke: Requiem

6. Bauhaus: Dark Entries

7. Stiff Little Fingers: Hits & Misses

8. Bad Religion: In the Night

9. A3: Too Sick to Pray

10. Ultravox: Just for a Moment

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13 Hours of Night, pt. II

YouTube Playlist

1. Dead Can Dance – Musica Eternal
2. Junkie XL feat. Saffron – Beauty Never Fades
3. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Red Right Hand
4. Disturbd – Animal
5. Ashbury Heights – Dancer’s Nocturne
6. Peace Orchestra feat. Hubert Tubbs – Who Am I?
7. Gary Numan – Dark (Extended)
8. Silversun Pickups – Cannibal
9. Wumpscut – Wreath of Barbs
10. VNV Nation – Retaliate
11. David Bowie – Heart’s Filthy Lesson
12. Natalie Imbruglia – Smoke
13. This Mortal Coil – Song to the Siren

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Pretty When You Cry
You wouldn't like me when I'm angry

Theme for this interlude:

Mila wakes up, stretches, shakes off the vague feeling of unease that always comes from the knowledge that the sun is so recently sunk beneath the horizon. For a moment she feels . . . numbed. As though her senses are wrapped in cotton wool. She sits up confused, bleary, on the verge of panic. Why the hell can’t I . . . and then, through the fog, remembers.

Joe is sitting by her side, watching her, a look of calm adoration on his face. “It’s okay, babe. I’m here. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.”

Relaxation and reassurance wash over her and, with them, she feels her senses sharpening, the world coming back into focus. Or rather, into that edgy hyperfocus that has started to seem normal these past few months. It’s almost as if when she goes to sleep as the dawn threatens, she passes off her hypervigilance to Joe. Funny thing, she’s always relied on his strength to keep her safe. Now, she feels like she’s loaning him some of hers.

And his reliance on her Vitae is only . . . a little creepy. After all she thinks, not for the first time, it’s not like we haven’t been fluid-bonded for years. This is just . . . a slightly closer bond. Nothing weird about it at all. She smiles, if you could call it that. Yeah, right.

“Are you okay?” he asks. “Do you need anything? Are you . . . hungry?”

“A little? I did have a rather . . . full evening yesterday.” There’d been a small but tense and confusing Invictus event with Adrian that had involved some ritual tasting of thralls, in a test that she didn’t quite understand but had seemingly passed. And then a late date with the Senator, his blood redolent of expensive brandy, fine aged steaks, and—oh, how delightfully retro—just a soupçon of high-grade Bolivian cocaine. Mr. Senator, you naughty, naughty man. You naughty, ridiculously wealthy and powerful, and surprisingly generous man.

“Babe? You there?”

“Oh, sorry. Just . . . thinking about something.”

He sighs, looks down at the cement floor. “I guess you’re going out again tonight?”. His tone of voice would be heartbreaking, to anyone with a functioning heart. Not resentful, just . . . resigned. She’s been so caught up in this crazy new world, trying so hard to impress Adrian and, by extension, the Prince, that’s she been treating Joe like a faithful watchdog, and not much more.

“Oh hon, I’m so sorry. I know it’s been kind of . . . weird lately.”

“Yeah, just kinda. A bit.”

Sarcasm. That’s a good sign. He hasn’t lost himself, become some mindless junkie slave.

“Actually, I was thinking, tonight, you want to maybe go do something fun?”

He looks wary. No doubt wondering what the hell she considers fun these days.

“It’s Monday, right? You want to maybe go to Death Guild? We haven’t been in ages, and you always used to like it.”

His whole affect changes, tension draining from his stance. “Yeah. That sounds good. Really.”

• • • •

It’s harder than usual to find parking near the DNA, and the streets seem a bit more crowded than she’d expected. As they approach the club, she sees to her surprise a line snaking down the block.

“Oh, damn it. Right. The anniversary,” Joe mutters, exasperated. “I actually saw a flyer or something last week but I forgot since, well, it’s not like we go out that much anymore . . .”

On the marquee, mismatched letters announce “Death Guild 21st Anniversary Benefit! Burning Man Fund Raiser! Undead Go-Go Dancers!”

Amused at that last, Mila focuses, extending her senses into what she’s come to think of as the supernatural spectrum. Right up there somewhere above ultraviolet. Ha, could have guessed. “So, bun, funny thing?”

He looks at her quizzically.

“Wanna guess how many other folks like me are here tonight?”

“Hot redheads with too much eyeliner and big stompy boots?”

“Smartass. You know what I mean.”

“Yeah? So, you’re saying Death Guild is a hotbed of vampires? How . . . silly.”

“Yeah, not so much a hotbed. But there’s definitely a few of us here. And all of them inside. Seems like Kindred don’t wait on line. Huh. Let me try something.”

She approaches the doorman confidently, Joe trailing at her heels. What did Adrian tell her this was called? Oh yeah, “Dominate.” Nothing kinky about that.

“Hi, excuse me, I think we’re on the list?” She turns it on full force, whatever “it” is exactly, making steady eye contact, feeling almost like she’s radiating something from her core. Dazed, he barely even glances at his clipboard.

“Of course, VIP entrance is right over here.”

She sweeps confidently in, Joe in her wake. He just shakes his head. “So that’s what you use your superpowers for? Getting in free to clubs?”

“Hey it worked, right?”

• • • •

Yes, this. This is what she came here for. To lose herself in the music, feeling it flow through her. This. This is what it feels like to be alive. Even if I guess I’m not anymore. She senses other Kindred in the club, but they’re keeping their distance, and she doesn’t taste any danger in the aur. Maybe they’re here to feed on a no-doubt-receptive audience of oh-so-goth mortals. Or maybe they’re just enjoying the ambiance. Huh. Speaking of feeding, probably should actually have done something about that before we got here, she realizes. She’s not feeling that crazy on-edge thing yet, but it’s there. Back at the edges of her consciousness, waiting to take the wheel. Oh well, it’s cool. I’ve got it under control. Let’s just have a fun night, and be sure to take care of the hunger soon, before I start to lose my grip.

The club is far more crowded than usual, all those warm, blood-filled bodies pulsing, throbbing, filling the air with their scent. It’s intoxicating and a little overwhelming. The only true annoyance is the unexpected preponderance of newbies and sight-seers. Bro-types who apparently heard about the big event and figured that anything associated with Burning Man would mean hot naked chicks. And they’re not far wrong. On pedestals around the cliub, gorgeous, barely clothed dancers spin and dip. Dressed in leather and lace, big boots, EL wire woven into their dreads. And in their hands they’re carrying . . . what? Oh shit.

Just as she realizes what she’s seeing, the music shifts to a more trippy beat and, on cue, the dancers bend down so that strategically placed roadies can fire up butane torches, igniting the poi balls that the dancers hae been swinging. Flames suddenly spin through the air overhead and Mila involuntarily leaps back, faster than any mortal eye could track.

Inside her, she feels the Beast snarl, twist. It’s like a physical pain, yet somehow strangely exhilarating. Like shooting up way too much speed, to the point that the hard, bright amphetamine rush is tinged not just with an almost-sexual pleasure, but with overtones of mania and death. God, she just wants to let it go, to ride the high, to let the violence and rage and beauty overcome her. And yet, against all odds, her rational mind is still hanging on, fighting the tide, trying to wrestle that horrible, gorgeous genie back into a very small bottle.

“What the hell? You almost spilled my drink!" Ugh. One of the jeans-and-trilby crowd. His litany of complaints trails off as he clicks in, checks her out. He stops whining, makes a visible effort to assume some sort of seductive demeanor.

Mila registers this on the periphery of her senses but, still rattled by the fire overhead, she can’t be bothered with this tedious mortal mating dance. Where the hell is Joe? she wonders, feeling a slight edge of disorientation and panic. How far from him did I scramble in that burst of terrified speed?

And suddenly, completely unbidden, there is a hand. A hand on her. A fucking disgusting mortal hand. Trying to . . . to grope her? Really? She whirls around, rage flowing through her like a deadly elixir.

“You. Fucking. What?” she hisses, every muscle tense, Beast poised to spring.

“Hey, I’m just saying. Don’t be like that. It’s all good.” He places his hand—_hand. bone, sinew, blood, so easy. So easy to rip it to fucking shreds, free the blood. Free it destroy it, destroy him, tear him to shreds. It’s only meat, filthy meat, nobody cares, take it take it take it—_places his hand on her waist, slides it down just a fraction over the thin silk of her skirt. “Oooh, garters. Daddy likes.”

That’s. Fucking. Enough.

Mila feels the Beast strongarm her aside. It’s taking over. It’s taking over and it’s fucking wonderful and horrible and perfect and terrifying and . . .

. . . as consciousness slips away, she feels her eyes welling over. Really? Really? Jesus fuck. I still fucking cry when I’m angry, even now? Like a fucking weakling. That’s . . . ugh. She angrily swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand, wiping away those traitor tears as she spirals down into the blinding, beautiful, mindless rage. The Beast screams its victory. She’s going, going . . . oh, almost, almost, so close to gone, and it feels so fucking . . .

“Babe.”

One calm, level word. But it’s that voice. It pulls at her, pulls her back to the control room. The Beast snarls, lunges against the leash. Don’t listen to him. Let me free. You know you want to. She shakes her head, tries to focus. Prey. Prey cowering, transfixed, all the bluster gone from him. He is filled with blood. Filled. With. Blood. The Beast tests the leash again, hard. And she lets herself . . .

“Babe. Not cool. Not cool at all. Come back to me.”
_
But I. But he. But I need to_ . . . she teeters. Oh god, it would be so easy to tilt the other way, back into the frenzy. So easy, so good, so . . .

Joe moves in even closer, owning her personal space effortlessly, pinning her down with that steady blue-eyed gaze. “Mellow the hell out, babe. This is really not cool.” He turns to the terrified bro, disdain suffusing his every motion. “And you. Leave. Now.”

The idiot stumbles off, babbling something about crazy bitches and he wasn’t doing anything anyway and what the hell is she on her period or what. As he flees the Beast tugs at her one last time, but it knows it’s beaten. The genie sullenly returns to the bottle. For now.

Joe. My god, Joe saved her from the Beast. He must have been so worried. She wants to reassure him.

“I. I’m okay now. Thanks, bon. Um, damn. That was . . .”

She trails off. Realizes he’s no longer focused on her face, her eyes, as he had been. Instead, he’s staring at her hand with the strangest look on his face. Mesmerized, hypnotized . . . hungry?

She looks at it, the right hand, remembers angrily dashing away her tears.
_
What the hell? Is that blood?_

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Chrysalis of Fury
Jan's relationship with the Beast . . . changes

The CR-V’s bumper gives the rear of the bike another hard tap, nearly spilling Jan and Violet once more. He risks a glance over his shoulder, and above the glare of headlights in the dark, he can see . . .

Grinning. Those two fuckers are smiling, showing more teeth than the whole Osmond family in giant shit-eating grins, like this is just a joyride for them.

Fucking cat-and-mouse bullshit!

He leans forward over the handlebars, goosing the throttle a bit more and leaning into the turn a little, feeling Violet shift on the pillion seat behind him. Then a sudden compression in the rear, and the bike feels . . . lighter.

What the—

A metallic thump of a body hitting metal, followed by the crack of breaking glass. Jan looks back again, sees Violet clinging to the hood of the SUV, one fist already punching a hole into the windshield, tearing the whole thing free. Behind the wheel, Ronnie grins even wider, opens his mouth and lets out a piercing shriek. In the passenger seat, Nick looks to be rummaging for something.

Fuck!

Jan swerves to one side, chops the throttle, lets the CR-V overtake him, then speeds up again, catching up to the rear bumper. The thought of abandoning his bike galls him; He’s dropped it before, it’s still beat up from his ride through the Santa Cruz mountains months back when—

The vehicle’s brake lights flash, and the SUV fishtails on the road. Up in the front of the vehicle, Violet’s grabbed hold of Ronnie, has him dragged halfway out of the vehicle, bent over the steering wheel—and the motherfucker is laughing his ass off. Nick, meanwhile, has crawled through the passenger compartment, and is now leering through the back window at Jan. As they pass under another flickering torch, Nick’s eyes flash brilliant yellow, like a cat or a bird of prey.

Yet another high-pitched, screeching call from the front of the chariot, and he can see Violet stiffen for a moment, briefly stunned by the sound coming from Ronnie (or whoever, or whatever he is). As they crest the slope of the road and begin to head downhill again, the CR-V picks up speed, despite the two battling it out over the dashboard. What if they get away and leave him behind? He can’t just let them take Violet—

I have had it with you fuckers. You want to play, let’s fucking play!

Jan twists the throttle hard, and the bike’s engine roars, pulling him so close to the bumper that his tire nearly goes under. He hops up on the footpegs, feeling the bike wobble a little, and yet, the Beast suddenly begins to surge, yes, so close to the surface like a shark rising from the depths, it wants out, No, it can’t take control, I’m in control fucker

We want this, no, it wants this, we want this, it’s not an ‘it’, it’s me, yes, you want this, it’s us, it’s you

In a perfect, crystallized moment, he can feel the Beast thrum through him, surging with cold fury beneath his skin, threatening to break free, no, don’t just ride with it, become it, it’s YOU

Kill that motherfucker. Now.

The Beast perches on top of the motorcycle, hunched down over the tank, feet on the saddle, Jan’s hands twisting the throttle one more time, and they it he leaps, a howl of primal fury erupting from his throat as he sails through dim orange streetlight, slams into the back of the CR-V, claws tearing through leather gloves and the tips of his riding boots, fangs long and razor-sharp behind his visor.

Behind, the bike’s engine falls to idle, fades, as it coasts along on momentum, then swerves and tips over onto its side, sliding into the ditch abutting the road’s embankment.

The Beast ignores it.

Punches through safety glass like paper, lunges into the SUV through the hole it’s made, battens upon the other occupant. The Nick-thing laughs, a voice entirely devoid of reason or sanity, utters another ululating shriek that threatens to drown out the Beast’s howls.

The Beast goes wild, rears back its helmeted head and brings it crashing down like a wrecking ball into the Nick-thing’s face. Clawed hands flail like a fistful of razors, tearing cloth, skin, flesh, splashes of blood painting the inside of the vehicle in long wet stripes. In the front seat, Violet grabs the steering wheel, her scream of anger carrying even through her riding helmet. Atop the battered hood, the thing that called itself Ronnie clings to the dashboard with fingertips stripped down to points of bone, madly raking at the air in front of Violet with the other hand, voice high-pitched, screaming words almost unintelligible.

“Yeaaaahhhhh! Now that’s the spirit!”

Violet stomps on the brake pedal, gives the wheel a hard jerk to one side, and everything goes weightless for a long moment. Outside the CR-V, the world tilts crazily, road to one side, then overhead, dark sky beneath. A streetlamp sails by below the driver’s side, underlighting everything in fiery orange.

A loud crump as the vehicle’s roof slams into pavement, skids, then begins to tumble, throwing them end over end. Violet slews across the front seats, clinging hard to the steering wheel, and as the SUV slams into the guard rail and crashes through it, her head slams into the dashboard. Her helmet’s straps snap, the piece of gear flying off and rattling around the interior like a pea in a can.

Outside, still clinging impossibly to the hood, the Ronnie-thing’s eyes flash bright yellow again, and he continues to laugh, each indrawn breath immediately shrieking out utter insanity—and then he’s abruptly yanked from view as the CR-V clips a tree trunk on its roll down the hillside.

The Beast ignores the battering it’s taking, keeps slashing its claws at Nick, ramming a hand into his torso and shredding flesh, howling and gnashing fangs behind the visor of Jan’s helmet.

Another loud WHAM as the SUV fetches up against a tree, undercarriage buckling against the trunk. All goes still but for the soft ticking of hot metal, the hiss of a cracked radiator. The acrid sweet stink of burning coolant and oil intermingled, bitterness of singed electrical wires and scorched rubber, the sharp vinegar note of battery acid and the odd hydrocarbon fragrance of spilled gasoline from a smashed gas tank all combine, nearly overpowering the sweet, wet smell of freshly churned earth and shredded plant matter.

The Nick-thing lets out a wet, choked gasp, coughing a mouthful of blood from crushed lungs inside a torso that looks crumpled like freshly-tumbled laundry.

The Beast sits back, sated. For now.

Jan quickly unbuckles his helmet, tossing it aside as he tries to sit upright, feels bone grind on bone. Under his jacket, he can feel several ribs shattered, his shoulder and neck shifting at unnatural angles, and as the blood quickens in him, flesh and bone slowly begin to knit with soft cracking and tearing sounds.

“Violet?! Violet!

“I’m here . . .” she calls from the front seats, pushing herself into view. One eyesocket is crimped, her temple dented in, a doll-like cheekbone likewise collapsed, teeth cracked, lips torn, jaw askew. Slowly, her features are beginning to reassemble themselves.

Jan bares his teeth in a snarl, feels his fangs still prominent, reaches down against the passenger side where the Nick-thing has landed, soaked in its own blood. The smell and the temptation it offers are overwhelming, and he hauls the body close, tears into a forearm, drinks—

“Ffthagh! What the fuck?!”

—spits out a mouthful of something brackish, dark, sour.

Nick’s eyelids twitch, his eyes a light hazel now, drawing in a rattling breath. Coughs up a bubble of blood so dark it is almost black. “Hh—it. It’s . . .”

Jan drags him closer, fists gathered into the shreds of his clothing.

“It . . . wasn’t,” Nick pleads, voice almost silent. “Wasn’t . . . me . . .”

He goes still, eyes dilating, glazing over, features slack, heartbeat gone.

Amid the greyish smoke of burnt oil and the wisps of white coolant steam, the SUV’s interior darkens as a haze of something blacker fills the compartment—then disappears.

Outside, a soft screech and a sound like a wingbeat, then silence.

At the back of the SUV, there is a faint whumph, then a soft flicker of merry yellow-orange light. Fire.

Shit!

Jan crawls out of the vehicle, helps drag Violet free, and together the two make their way on hands and knees up the torn slope of the hill to the roadway. Behind them, a column of smoke boils up above lambent orange and yellow tongues as the spilled fuel becomes a small bonfire. The crackle of flames is punctuated by a sudden pow as one of the back hatch’s pneumatic cylinders explodes.

Partway up the slope, the two find Ronnie, folded the wrong way around the trunk of a slender eucalyptus. His manic grin is gone, his remaining eye now a muddy green in the intact side of his face, his expression a slack look of dismay.

Jan and Violet exchange a look, then continue dragging themselves upslope, until they stand on the deserted road in the hills over Oakland. With another soft crack and a series of snaps, Jan’s spine finishes knitting back together, and Violet’s features are composed and porcelain-doll-perfect once again, albeit smudged with dirt and grease.

Hunger gathers in him, the price for healing so much damage. And only one thing will feed that hunger.

Fuck. We’d be dead if . . . if we weren’t already. And before I jumped . . . I was . . .

Jan shares a long look with Violet, shakes his head in disbelief. This is not what anyone would call a normal evening by any stretch of the imagination.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asks her.

She just gives him a look of bewilderment, shrugs. The two turn, and begin making their way to where he ditched the bike uphill, hoping it’s still intact.

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Down the Puppet Strings
Mila is drawn deeper into the Dans

Theme for this interlude:

“Miss Goodlove. So good of you to join me.”

Adrian looks up from his desk as she enters. Neutral expression, neither pleased nor displeased to see her. When he’d asked her to meet him at his home she’d . . . wondered. Up until now, their meetings have taken place in the sort of unrelentingly upscale and private clubs that she has come to associate with Invictus business. Dark wood, quietly murmuring attachés, and untapped decanters of priceless scotch. Or sometimes the achingly frigid European glass-and-steel boîtes she assumes remind Adrian of his days as a top-of-the-world-ma Wolf of Wall Street. Either way, the message is clear: We are very wealthy, very old, and very powerful.

She’s unsure whether this invitation heralds a new era of trust or intimacy, or if he was just too busy to bother with a reservation at the Camarilla Lounge. If the Prince’s notary needs reservations. Or if, more likely, this is some new test of her composure, resourcefulness, or loyalty.

The desk is a massive slab of mahogany, and she notes with some amusement that, while he’s working at a sleek titanium laptop, a fountain pen and what looks like sealing wax are within easy reach.

He follows her glance seeming, as ever, to anticipate her thoughts and words before she even quite forms them. “Tradition, Miss Goodlove. It’s what makes Invictus great. It is, if I may speak frankly, also what makes us vulnerable. As you and I both know.”

Interesting. Adrian is not a man who speaks in an unconsidered way, ever. If he’s creating a sense of . . . shall we call it intimacy? Rapport? . . . he is doing it to some end. Hopefully, not hers.

“I’m learning a lot Mr. Pryor, and I appreciate your guidance. That said, my knowledge of the ways of Invictus are rather limited still. I do hope to become more knowledgable and, with that, more useful to the covenant. And to you.”

“Pretty words. You even mean some of them. How . . . charming.” He pauses, considers. “Perhaps my leadership has been a bit . . . one-sided. You have provided some very interesting little tidbits as part of your . . . new career, shall we say? . . . and I am not displeased. I shall take under consideration how your education might best be furthered.“

He tilts his head, his steely gaze suddenly sharpening. “That, however, is a matter for another day. I am a busy man, as you can see.” One elegant, perfectly manicured hand somehow manages to gesture towards scattered paperwork in a way that’s both inclusive and dismissive.

“I appreciate your time, as ever. Is there a way that I can be of service?”

“You can be candid with me Miss Goodlove. About your personal life.”

What the . . .? Oh. Joe. It’s got to be Joe.

“Your living situation is a bit . . . unorthodox.” Slightly raised eyebrow. A very calculated look. As much amused as disapproving, if she’s reading him correctly. A very big if.

“I had been meaning to talk to you about that,” she says. “I certainly don’t want you to think I’m trying to conceal anything.”

The look of patrician amusement. “Miss Goodlove. The chances that you could conceal anything from me are, shall we say, vanishingly slim.”

He has me there, she thinks.

“Indeed. So tell me about this husband of yours. You must love him very much. Or find him very useful.”

“I do. Love him, I mean. I know that’s sort of . . . frowned upon, keeping up old entanglements. Especially with mortals, from what I gather. But he and I have a bond and a history. And this may sound sentimental but, well, he’s a tie to my former humanity. And that feels important somehow.”

And you find him useful.”

“Well, yes. He guards me during the day. He has my best interests at heart. He loves me. It’s kind of that simple.”

“He loves you the way a junkie loves the needle and the spoon, you know.”

“He always has. And I him. It’s just a bit more . . . explicit nowadays.”

He nods. “Well, unlike some of the other covenants, Invictus has a long tradition employing ghouls in positions of some trust and responsibility, Your friends the Dragons would probably like to cut him up or hook electrodes to him just to see which way he twitches, but we’re not quite so . . . unsubtle. That said, the illusion that a romantic life is possible for those in our condition is not . . . appealing to most Kindred. It feels a bit . . . tawdry. Juvenile.”

“I have heard things to that effect.” From Jan and Violet, she thinks. I hope they’re doing okay.

“I’m not going to pass judgment on your friends and their . . . peculiar arrangements. That’s between them and their betters. You, however, are in a position to embarrass me, and that would not be acceptable.”

He’s doing it again. Answering questions she hasn’t asked yet. “I’ve given that some thought, and I have what I hope you might find to be some useful additional input.”

“Do go on, Miss Goodlove.”

“Well, you talked about being useful. Here’s the thing. Joe has worked as a courier for most of his adult life. He knows the Bay Area and California as a whole inside out and is incredibly good at gaining entrance to places he probably shouldn’t be . . . inside security at hospitals, transplant centers, banks, government offices. He’s TSA certified and popular with airline workers who know him. So, what I’m saying is, he could bring certain . . . talents and insights to Invictus operations. He can gather intel, be sure packages get where they’re going, maybe be sure they don’t get somewhere else. He has . . . an odd talent for hiding in plain sight. The big burly guy in the Ben Davis shirt who couldn’t possibly be smart enough to understand what these legal papers say, no need to seal the envelope. That kind of thing. If I’m the ghost in the machine, he’s the purloined letter. We can use that.”

The eyebrow arches again. “We, Miss Goodlove?”.

“Yes. We. Invictus.”

“You . . . surprise me.”

“I get the sense that’s not an easy thing to do.”

“No, no it isn’t.”

She hopes that he’ll continue, let her know how her proposal went over, but he just sits back in his perfectly engineered office chair, glances down at his screen for a moment.

“How is it that you came to make him your ghoul? Were you instructed or encouraged by anyone?”

“No, it just . . . sort of happened. At the first Elysium I saw that others had brought their ghouls, and that clearly it wasn’t frowned upon in the same way that creating a childe would be. And as to how . . . I don’t know. I guess I just sort of picked up hints and impressions of how to do it from the other Kindred in the room once I started paying attention. I . . . seem to be good at that sort of thing.”

“Indeed. So, might you be inclined to try something like this again?”

“How do you mean?”

He rolls his eyes slightly. If he breathed, there’d be an exasperated sigh. She’s failing an intelligence test. Damn.

“Do try to keep up. You have enthralled one man with your Vitae, a man whom we can find use for to further Invictus’ interests. Your motives for binding him were . . . unorthodox. Some might say, unworthy or even unseemly. Still, the fact that you’re thinking about him strategically as an asset rather than in an overly . . . saccharine fashion is heartening. My question to you is, how dedicated are you to asset acquisition?”

It’s her turn to raise an eyebrow. He takes this as the invitation that it is.

“It’s not unheard of to use the power of Vitae to bind and enthrall humans who might be . . . useful. After all, you seem quite comfortable using your rather formidable assets to beguile powerful men. Consider it . . . a brand extension.”

Her first reaction is purely clinical. Interesting. The Senator? No, too obvious, too likely to somehow breach the Masquerade. Someone lower down the organization, less visible but still powerful, then. A well-placed lobbyist? Might be a bit tricky to juggle if they need too much attention or got too attached, but . . . oh.

“Yes? Your hesitation?”

“I . . . I did tell Joe that I wouldn’t share my Vitae with anyone else. I’ve already messed that up kind of carelessly. I . . . I guess it feels like doing what you’re talking about would be a violation of trust, especially since I know that now he wouldn’t feel able to object.”

“Loyalty. Fidelity. To a mortal. To a ghoul. How . . . quaint.”

“It’s not an absolute no. It’s a thing that would need to be negotiated. But I can . . . take it under consideration.”

“Do so, Miss Goodlove. And don’t take too long.”

“I won’t. I have some ideas. I’ll work something up and get back to you shortly.”

“You continue to surprise me, Miss Goodlove. Don’t make a habit of it.”

She can’t tell whether he’s joking or not. Is he ever?

“I’ll do my best.”

“You’ll do better than that if you know what’s good for you. Good night.”

He turns back to his laptop. The meeting is clearly over. She turns to leave, looks back on some instinct. As he raises his hand to type, she notices a gleam at his wrist.

The sapphire cufflinks.

Interesting.

View
All Tomorrow's Parties
Slipping from the Shadows

Theme for this interlude:

“Nice ride, Miss Mila. Don’t worry I’ll watch it just like I watched the ol’ Volvo.”

She swings the Porsche’s door shut, hands Rex a 20. “I know you will. Thanks.” The 1976 Carrera was her first extravagant gift to herself since her . . . transformation. Sleek, low profile, and almost flat black. Not flashy. You might not notice it in a sea of shiny new cars, but get behind the wheel and it is pure stealth, sex, and shadow. A 5-speed 2,700 cc creature of the night.

She’s parked just up the street from the café and, somewhat perversely, finds herself wishing she had farther to walk, meaner streets to traverse. Her newly discovered talent for slipping unnoticed through the world has become something of a game, a challenge, a practice. She’s learned that the trick is not to hide in the shadows so much as to dance with them, to become one of them. Ah well. Enough time for hide and seek later, there’s business to attend to.

Pushing open the cafe’s door she scans the crowded space, does that thing she’s taken to doing almost unconsciously these days where she sort of . . . extends her senses. It’s like looking extra closely, or focusing your hearing, only . . . more so. Sometimes she almost feels like she’s not just listening in on conversations but almost hearing in between the words, the words that aren’t being spoken. Can’t quite catch them, but . . . maybe that’s just her imagination. No need to get carried away. Nobody can do that. Can they?

Ah, there she is. Kitten is sitting at a table, casually browsing her iPad, licking the caramel off her spoon with just a little more self-conscious sex appeal than looks entirely natural. Which, for her, is perfectly natural.

“Hey, sorry I’m late.”

“Oh, that’s cool. I was early. Had to get one of these amazing milkshakes. You want one?”

“Sounds good, but I just got up. I’ll just grab some tea.”

Mila heads to the counter, gets a small pot of green tea. Something she can play at sipping. As she sits down, Kitten takes a moment, really looks her up and down. “You look awesome. I guess I haven’t seen you in a while. You working out or something?”

“Yeah, you know, the running. And I’ve been on this new diet.”

“Well, whatever crazy shit you’re doing, it’s working for you. Don’t even tell me about the diet, you know I hate that stuff.”

“No worries, nothing more boring than someone who can’t stop talking about what they eat, right?”

“You know it. Anyway, you said you wanted to talk shop. What’s up?”

Mila fidgets with her teacup. Even at Wicked Grounds, even across the table from a girl who blogs profusely and unabashedly about sex work this feels . . . awkward. “Well, you know, I really appreciate all the advice you gave me about getting started with, ah, working. And the referral to Cassie. I guess I was just hoping to get a little more advice now that I’m getting a feel for it.”

“Okay . . .” A slightly guarded expression flashes across Kitten’s face.

“I mean, I don’t want to abuse your willingness to be helpful, you’ve been so great. And I mean, I’m totally happy to refer clients to you, share the wealth. I can’t even take a lot of the jobs that involve overnights or travel, and I’d love for them to go to a friend rather than just some random person.”

That seemed to diffuse whatever tension was in the air. Nobody likes to feel taken advantage of, especially in a business where losing a top client could mean tens of thousands of dollars a year.

“What did you want to know?”

“Well, I’m just trying to figure out my options. Cassie is great, and I’ve met some amazing clients through her, but I’m kind of wondering if I should try flying solo. You know, more money, little more control of my schedule, that kind of thing.”

Kitten considers. “My main advice is, take it slow. Cassie has incredible connections, the kind that take years to build. Realistically, if you just hang out a shingle on your own, you’re not necessarily going to be getting those senators and global CEOs stumbling in your door. VIP has put a lot of effort into that client list. You might want to work it a little longer.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

“What I’d do is, make your own website. Something really classy with arty photos, clever copy, that kind of thing. Show you’re 5 steps above the average call girl. And your site can redirect to VIP for booking. So that way, if you decide to go solo, you have the platform, and you’re building your brand either way. Not relying on VIP’s ads. After all, you don’t stay the flavor of the month forever.”

“Cool, that makes sense. I hadn’t really thought of it that way.”

They chat a bit more, the usual scene gossip, who’s doing what to whom, and agree to help each other out with referrals. As the cafe starts to wind down and empty out Mila thanks Kitten again, and heads into the night. Home to Joe. But first, better take care of . . . stuff. Can I wait til the White Horse, she wonders. Is that even smart? I’ve been making pretty free use of them, someone might get suspicious. A sudden inspiration strikes, and she turns left, finds parking not far from the Power Exchange. After all, ladies get in free and there are all kinds of dark corners that creepers are only too happy to follow her into. And the staff has seen weirder things. Much, much weirder.

She tidies herself up, slips invisibly towards the door, and she’s on her way, sauntering past slumbering blocks of insulae, swinging her hips a little under rustling indigo silk, gold bangles jingling quietly.

  • * *

Sunset, the next evening

She stirs grumpily in her nest of blankets downstairs, already hungry. That snack at the Power Exchange didn’t really hit the spot. What to do, what to do? Her phone buzzes, signalling a missed text. She grabs it, checks. Cassie, about a half hour ago, asking if she can take a booking on short notice. “It’s the Senator. I think he’s in love, lol. Asked for you again.”

The Senator. That’s . . . interesting. Last time she saw him, he said he would be busy in Washington for a while. And it’s not like him to slip into town unannounced, under cover of night. Might not mean anything, but . . . hmmm. Last time she’d seen him, there had been some cryptic emails on his laptop that looked like they’d been routed through anonymizers, cautious talk about “the planning commission,” “the ongoing development,” and “our Italian associates.” Some kind of big real estate deal? Would a popular politician risk his career for some sort of shady dealings? Ha. Can’t believe I even thought that to myself, she says under her breath.

“Did you say something?” Joe is, as ever, alert and vigilant. He’s sleeping a lot less these days but that doesn’t seem to bother him much. It’s . . . nice. She’s really missed him with these crazy diametrically opposed schedules. All those womens magazines always say you need to make time for your relationship, whatever the challenges. Challenges. They have no fucking idea.

“Sorry Bon, talking to myself. Looks like I’ve got a job to go to.”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Hey, we got to have fun last night. And I’m working on plans for a real date-type date. Promise!”

“I’m not giving you shit. As long as you’re not weirded out by the job, I’m fine. Just let me know when you’re coming home.”

“So you can hide the hookers and heroin?”

“Exactly.”

  • * *

Another drive across the bridge. Her senses feel . . . jacked up. The hum of the engine as she shifts feels like sex. The music feels like sex. The silk of her dress against her thighs. This is all . . . oddly familiar somehow. Huh . . . speed. It’s like doing speed. When the high is almost as good as an orgasm, so the whole drive to your dealer’s place, the walk home knowing you’ve got that baggie in your purse . . . it feels like sexual tension, tension you know is going to be amazing when it’s released. And so everything feels like sex. Anticipation. Coiled spring. Possibilities.

And yeah, that’s what this feels like. Knowing she’s going to get to feed, that it’s going to feel amazing, especially with the extra edge of hunger she seems to be riding, is giving her that familiar ache. I can use this, she thinks. Channel it. Let him see how hungry I am for him. That’s gotta be more than a little exciting. To have someone want you that much.

So much sensation. The purr of the car. The music. Silk stockings as she shifts in the leather seat. Soft, supple leather like living skin. The night. The shadows. The hunger. Always, the hunger.

View
Night School
The Rigors of an Ordo Dracul Curriculum

~ ~ ~

Hands-on tutelage from other advanced students . . .

“Hey. Catch.”

He looks up from the notes in his lap just in time to see the black blur hurtling at him. Out of sheer reflex, he snatches the bundle out of the air, blinking and looking it over. Black leather boots, engineer-heeled with ankle-strap and chain, calves emblazoned with white rattlesnake skeleton designs.

He looks from the boots, up to Rickard, who stands nearby. “I . . . gave you these, as a gift.”

Rickard nods soberly. “That’s right. You did. I’m grateful. And guess what: They need a polishing. Better get to work.”

“Does this . . . take priority over my studies?” Jan asks, giving the bigger man a wary look.

“It does for now, Slave.” I really wish he wouldn’t use that . . . title.

“Hey! Can he do mine too?!” Kiko calls from the other end of the bench where she and Alec watch another sparring match.

“No. Now shut th’ fuck up and mind yer business, Kiko,” Rickard bellows back over the metal blaring out of the boxing room’s speakers. “‘Sides, yer round’s coming up anyway.” Kiko gives him a sneer, hanging her tongue out between fangs for a moment, then turns to find her gloves.

Jan almost sighs, catches himself, then slips his notes and the book into his satchel, keeping it close at hand. “Even if the Rites say studies are our highest priority?”

Rickard settles his weight down onto the bench, giving a derisive snort. “Don’t get too smart, there; wouldn’t want it to come back and bite you in the ass again.” He tosses a battered brown paper bag onto the stands next to Jan. “Gotcha a present.”

The neonate rummages in the bag, pulling out a can of high-grade wax, a small brush and cloth. “You shouldn’t have,” Jan responds, voice dry. He sets one boot on his lap and begins working on it, applying wax across the leather from toe to heel. “I’m starting to feel like . . .”

“Like what?” Rickard rumbles.

“. . . A prospect.”

The older Gangrel tilts his head, giving Jan a suspicious once-over. “What d’you know about that?”

Jan looks up at him, then goes back to carefully scrubbing the boot in gentle strokes with the brush, working the wax to a low gloss as he talks. “I used to be one, for a local club. Group of friends put it together, including some old-timers. They promoted me to the first non-founder member when I scraped one of their guys off the road after an accident.”

“Yeah?” Rickard stretches his legs out, spreads arms across the bench behind and above him, taking up considerable space on the bleachers. His voice is calm, and his pose relaxed, but Jan can tell he’s listening closely. “Haven’t heard you talk about it.”

“I didn’t stay in long. Also got injured when I was still—well, still breathing. Took me out of riding for awhile.”

“Where’s yer cut?” Rickard fixes his gaze on the next round as Kiko and Alec square up.

“Club has it still,” Jan replies, turning from the brush to the cloth. Stretching it between two hands and bracing the boot between his knees, he carefully begins buffing the coat of polish to a soft gleam. He pauses, looks up at Rickard. “You’ve got yours, though . . .”

Rickard just makes an “Mm-hm” sound, like a thoughtful kodiak.

“No patches, though? Thought you had to keep it intact. Or—”

The Carthian envoy’s head swivels in Jan’s direction and fixes a dull glare down at him. “We’re done talkin’ about it.”

Jan immediately falls silent, raises his hands in a placating gesture. “Fair enough,” he says, before returning to polishing the boot. “So . . .” the neonate tries again. “Why ‘slave’? Why not . . . I dunno, ‘apprentice’, or something?”

“Fuck ’im up!” Rickard bellows at Kiko, watching her driven back against the ropes by Alec as the round begins. He bares his teeth in a grin at Jan, then returns his gaze to the match. “You’re a slave, ‘cause that’s what you are.”

“What, you mean to anyone higher up? It’s like . . . a fraternity.”

“Nah, fuck that sissy shit. You’’ll see some weird shit, yeah, but it ain’t just to make you suffer without purpose.”

Jan nods, appraises the polish job on the boot. Fuck, I can’t spit-polish without spit. No nylons either. “Makes sense,” he says to Rickard. “‘No change without purpose,’ like the rites say, yeah?”

“Kinda. Good observation, by the way. Looks like even a smartass like you can learn something fast.” Rickard claps meaty hands together like two hams, raises them to his mouth and cups them together. “Don’t take no shit from ‘er, ’A’!” He briefly looks over Jan’s handiwork, gives a grudging nod. “Well, for one thing, I ain’t some withered old fuck that zaps people, and you ain’t some seven-foot-tall asthma case.”

Jan’s eyes bug out slightly at the sudden pop-culture reference. “Okay . . .”

“Yer also a slave, ’cause yer a slave to the Beast, to your Curse,” Rickard continues. “Fire and that day-ball still make you wanna piss blood and hide, y’still wanna lose yer shit and tear people apart, and ya still gotta feed from breathers.”

The neonate picks up the other boot, stops, tilts his head in thought. “Alright . . . yeah.”

“You show y’ can learn a little how to overcome it, make it yours, bit by bit, maybe you get to be more’n a slave.” Rickard rolls his broad shoulders in a shrug. “Till then, you’re our bitch.”

“What—everyone’s?” Jan expression edges toward wary.

“No, dumbass,” Rickard tells him. “Just the Dragons. We give you a chance to learn, but you do your part. You carry messages, you transcribe shit, you help with research . . . and you polish the boots. But just ours. Kiko, though? She can make one’a her boy-toys tongue-polish those dainty little fucken things she wears.”

“Even if she’s a Carthian?” Jan works the brush over the second boot, carefully getting each nook and cranny polished. “All that share-and-share-alike you—and the Prefect—told me about.”

“Hmf. Even that shit’s got limits. I don’t tread on the Ordo’s toes, I get to learn ‘bout their methods, long as I don’t go sharin’ all their secrets. The Movement gets t’learn a little from my time there.”

Jan proffers the pair of boots back to Rickard, who gives them a critical examination. “You sure y’didn’t miss a spot?”

“This isn’t my first pair I’ve polished,” Jan tells him. “Not at all.”

“Huh.” The envoy takes the boots, kicks off his old pair, slips on the new ones. “Aah, gonna have to break ’em in.” He grins mirthlessly down at Jan. “Course, means they’ll need polishing again later.”

Jan grits his teeth just slightly, nods. “Yep. Figured.”

“F’now, though, let’s see what you’ve learned from the Rites so far. Pull out that journal’a yours; school’s in.”

Fucking finally. He pulls his notes back out of his satchel, along with the books.

“Better hurry up, though,” Rickard warns him. “You gotta match coming up with Garrett.”

Jan looks up, spotting the Prefect entering the club, and the Beast suddenly writhes inside him, soundlessly snarling and testing its bounds at the thought. Oh, fucking hell!

~ ~ ~

Intramural athletics to complement academics . . .

Circling each other warily in the ring, Jan and Garrett occasionally feint, making quick jabs to test their opponent’s defenses. Behind his headgear, Jan clenches his teeth against the mouthguard, fingers curling tight inside the heavy padded gloves. This is still bullshit.

“What are you thinkin’ there?” Garrett ducks left, then steps right, swinging against Jan’s side. His glove only lightly catches against his ribs as the younger Kindred leaps back. Fucker.

“Did you know?” Jan asks, voice muffled through the plastic. He hops back another step, makes a brief feint, then squares up again, arms held up before him.

“Know what? You were gonna join the Order?” Garrett replies, voice only slightly clearer.

“Yesh.” The Beast can feel Garrett’s presence, stronger, older, and for just a moment, it doesn’t care. The urge to shred the gloves off, tear away the headgear, fight unguarded . . .

“No. I didn’t.” Garrett shakes his head, but keeps his gazed fixed on Jan. He quickly steps in, makes a pair of hard left-right jabs, before Jan blocks them out, shoves him back.

“You planned f’r it, though.” Jan hops to the right, makes a swift right feint, tries for a left swing. Garrett catches the punch, smothers it, and Jan yanks his arm free, steps back out of range.

“I plan . . .” The Prefect leaps forward in a blur, swinging a left hook hard, rocking Jan’s head back. “. . . on a lotta thingsh.”

The neonate huffs angrily through his nostrils. No need to catch my breath, at least. He shakes his head hard, tamping down on the Beast’s desire to leap out. “An’ I’m jusht one of ’em, huh?”

“Y’got it. Nothin’ pershonal.”

Jan’s eyes narrow. “Y’know what that writer’sh got t’shay about that.” He lunges forward, swinging hard, left, right, left. Garrett soaks up most of the blows, takes a punch to his side, blocks another, responds with a strong jab that knocks Jan off of his feet.

Fuck! Inside the Beast howls in outrage, wanting to be free NOW.

DING-DING!

Both combatants pause at the bell, at Rickard perched on the bleachers, holding up the tiny hammer in a massive hand. Garrett turns, holding out a gloved hand to Jan, offering to help him up. Jan shakes his head, waves away the offer as he tucks his feet under him and springs up. The Prefect shakes his head, spits out his mouthguard to speak more clearly.

“It’s a smart move you took, getting out of the line of fire like that.”

“Yeah, right.” Jan pulls his mouthguard free, examining the fang-marks bitten deep into the plastic. Looking at Garrett is low on his list of priorities right now.

“I’m serious. Yes, Rickard’s watching you for us, but only in the hope that you might reconsider.”

What? The hell is he talking about? “Reconsider? What, being the ball for a ping-pong game between Invictus and the Movement?”

Garrett falls silent, and for a moment Jan tenses, and even the Beast settles back, cautious.

“No,” the Prefect finally says. “You think good on your feet. Joining the Ordo shows you’re smart, and people will take you more seriously instead of being an unaligned errand boy.”

“What’s that got to do with—”

“The Movement could still use someone who thinks like you. ‘Make it personal’ all you want, but I’m offering you a favor. And remember: Everyone uses everyone here. You will too, eventually.”

Jan shakes his head in disbelief. Never using Violet. She’ll never use me.

“I can guess what you’re thinking,” Garrett says. “Be careful your connections don’t become liabilities.”

DING! “Next round!”

Garrett replaces his mouthguard, watches as Jan shoves his into place and bites down hard on it. “Think on it.”

Jan shrugs, but gives no answer, as the two begin to circle each other once more.

~ ~ ~

Detailed lectures and assiduous records . . .

“What else have you learned?” Doctor Kaintz’ footsteps pace softly back and forth through his study, just behind Jan’s seat in the tall wingback chair.

He pages through his notes, looking at the most recent information collected. “He’d signed on with Genetology about seven months ago; Now they’re interviewing for someone and offering more pay. Got his lease through CityRents-dot-com, and they’ve already rented out his apartment to a new lessee. His . . . parents were coming to visit.”

And they’d have been here for the holidays. Shit.

Doctor Kaintz pauses behind the chair, still out of sight. “Is something the matter?” his voice inquires, patient, but mildly displeased by the pause.

Jan stares at the collected news clippings, printouts, receipts, coroner’s report from Doctor Eschleman’s office— at least what little could be collected before Darren Martin came back to a parody of life, a ‘revenant’. The rest of the report is falsified, but Jan knows how the man died.

“Doct—Master Kaintz, I . . .” Jan stops, starts again. “Sorry. He’s only the second person I . . .”

“Dispatched?” The Dragon scholar’s voice is dispassionate.

“Yeah. Yes. It. I didn’t mean to . . .”

“You had no intent to kill him, or even harm him. Yes. But you lost your self-control, the Beast took over. And now you see the results.”

Jan clenches his fists in his lap, staring blankly at the binder with its two divided files: one for the neighbor, one for the jogger. “It’s not like I wanted to be responsible for—”

“This is not about responsibility, Slave,” Doctor Kaintz interrupts as he circles the chair, around the desk, taking his own seat, examining Jan instead of the paperwork. “This is not about guilt, or triumph. Chasing the Dragon’s Tail is about change. About showing that no change happens without effect.”

“Butterfly,” Jan whispers to himself, and yet Doctor Kaintz nods as if he had spoken out loud.

“Just so, Slave.” Kaintz inclines his head to the documentation. “You are the insect here. That one twitch of your wings, whether in choice or no, has caused everything to change, despite your miniscule size.”

“Yeah . . .” Jan replies, still not looking up. “I’m beginning to see that. I really am.”

~ ~ ~

Cooperation between disciplines . . .

Jan looks up and down the alley, at the various narrow doors, the shuttered windows overhead. In the streets outside, he can hear and see foot traffic, smell the assorted collected scents of spices, greasy food, astringent tea, cheap plastic trinkets, garbage, smoke and steam . . .

In the alley, in this one particular spot, no scents arise, and sounds are curiously flattened. He squints, stares hard, sweeping his gaze back and forth across the wall. Blinks and shakes his head. Gives the narrow red wooden door directly in front of him a suspicious look. That wasn’t there before. Was it?

Jan raises a hand, touches the wood—it’s real, all right—and then takes hold of the iron knocker. Levering the iron ring away from the lion’s head mount, he taps it three times against the door, then two, then thrice more.

Almost instantly the door unbolts and opens. A tiny, wide-eyed young asian child—Jan can’t immediately discern gender—peers up at him, expression calm and severe.

“Hello . . . evening. A message for the . . .” Jan pauses only for a non-heartbeat, just long enough to get the word right. “Kogaion.”

The child simply backs into the doorway without a sound, and as the door creaks wider, Jan enters the chamber. Polished wooden floor and old brick walls surround a chamber filled with bookshelves, tables covered in jars of dried herbs and other less identifiable things. Dim red and yellow light spills from paper lanterns, candles in glass, a screened-in fireplace. Various charms, mirrors, and ribbons hang from the ceiling; the walls are hung with scrolls and held up with shelves. Through one wall, a curtained doorway leads elsewhere, and across the room, a staircase of the same polished, oiled deep red wood leads upstairs. Somehow, the room seems slightly larger inside than the outside would have suggested.

Jan blinks hard, closing his eyes for a moment. A soft boom of the wooden door closing and bolting, but as he turns around, the child is nowhere to be seen.

A soft creak at the top of the stairs across the room, and he spins to look, but sees nothing, hears nothing. Smells nothing but the pungent weight of herbs and oils in the air, almost cloying if he had to breathe.

The neonate carefully makes his way through the room, pausing by the curtain, but something makes him pause just before parting the heavy velvet drapery. He turns, continues to the stairs, taking each step slowly, almost cringing at the occasional soft creak of wood on wood. At the top, he pauses, looking across a room that is curiously long and narrow for the building’s dimensions—or for the floor below.

Near the center of the room, three figures, identical but for their eye color and clothing (one in a deep black suit, one in a robe of the same black, one in an equally black cloak, sit nearly shoulder to shoulder on a brocade rug before a low table. Their features are vaguely Asiatic, but later Jan cannot seem to remember whose eyes were green, blue, or dark brown.

On a silken pillow kneels an ancient Chinese man in robes of saffron and onyx, arms tucked into his sleeves, head bowed in thought over a single sheaf of paper before him. He raises his head, withered nut-brown features creasing beneath wisps of long white hair as his attention fixes on Jan.

A soft tug at Jan’s sleeve, and he looks down. Standing next to him is the child once more, who gives another gentle tug, and leads him on. As Jan approaches, a heaviness in the air seems to gather, and he pauses before the trio on their seats, the leather and wood holding them comfortably. All three figures turn their heads in unison, patrician Roman features gazing intently.

Jan stops, looking for the child, who has vanished again. He blinks, turning slightly to address the senator in his chair. The old man merely blinks once in return, features arranged in patience and mild curiosity.

“Honored Kogaion, Shen Xiao Wei, Keeper of the Wyrm’s Nest, Sworn of Mysteries, Master of Equilibrium. . .” Jan lowers himself to his knees, bowing before the elder.

“I present myself, Jan Farkas, Slave of Renewed Fury, Sworn to none. . .” He draws a sealed cylinder from inside his jacket, proffering it in both hands.

“. . . and I bear a message from the Honored Doctor Johann Kaintz, Sworn of the Dying Light, Master of the Fiery Demesne.” Beneath his knees, the brocaded rug’s mosaic is done in tiles of yellow, red, black, the silken fibers almost dimly gleaming in the lamplight.

“Rise, Slave of Fury,” the voice is thin, papery, almost silent, but reaches him as if spoken directly into his ear. Jan sits up, holding out—empty hands. The black-clad trio has retreated across the room, holding their own sheaf of papers, and the scroll he brought is now unrolled across the table before the elder.

“Thank you, Master . . .” He shifts back, carefully taking to his feet again, shifting a touch uncomfortably in his sandals even while he tries to remain perfectly still.

The aged figure runs a hand thoughtfully across the writing before him, then turns and gazes upon Jan again. “It is happening now,” the man’s voice reaches him once more, slow, meditative. “Is it not?”

“Yes, Master. It is.” Jan doesn’t bother asking how he knew. He has a feeling the elder would not bother to tell him.

The robed man glances across the room, and Jan follows his gaze. In one corner, the child reaches up, gently nudging one of the charms and adjusting its position slightly. From somewhere overhead Jan could swear he hears a brief, almost soundless flapping of wingbeats, then nothing. The heaviness in the air grows, but the room somehow seems paradoxically lighter nonetheless.

Reality settles firmly in place. No patricians; no mosaics; no torches.

“Interesting . . .” the Kogaion’s voice is slow, meditative, picking each syllable in the word over one at a time as he gazes calmly at Jan. The neonate remains seated, waiting.

“Stand, Slave of Fury,” Shen says after several moments of silence. As Jan takes to his feet again, the child is next to him, pressing another sealed letter into his hands. “Take this to the Master of the Fiery Demesne. Go, now.”

Jan bows deeply, turning toward the doorway leading to the stairs, but the child tugs at his sleeve once more, leading him to another door across the room. Jan reaches out, opens the door, steps through—

—the alley is just as calm and untraveled as it was when he arrived, light and sound and smell from the main street spilling down the narrow opening.

Jan blinks, spinning in place, looking at the blank brick wall of the building next to him. The sealed envelope is in his hand, however, addressed to Kaintz.

With a backward glance or two, he makes his way back to the main street.

~ ~ ~

The Importance of non-scholastic interactions . . .

Jan’s fingers tighten around the mobile phone, and his teeth grind audibly in the empty parking lot. From the device’s earpiece, a faint, shrill voice carries on.

“No. No, I can’t.”

crackle rattle

“No, I told you, we’re trying to schedule it for sunset.”

crack crackle hiss

“That isn’t my problem.”

snap rattle hiss crackle

Jan bares his teeth in an involuntary snarl, fangs showing. “No. I told you, I’m settling it my way.”

HISS rattle crack SNAP

The Beast curls fingers more tightly around the mobile, points of fingernails darkening, thickening, sharpening. “Will. you. listen.

Soft rattle

“This is how we want to do it. She’s changed . . . jobs, like I said. And I’ve got—”

Interrupting crackle hiss pop

No. I meant it. That’s final. We’ll sort the rest out later. I have to go. Good-bye. Mother.

Jan thumbs the END button, watching the screen ripple and discolor briefly under the pressure. The Beast raises a growl in his throat, and for a second the urge to crush the device in his hands threatens to overwhelm him. With an effort he forces it down again, and returns inside the apartment.

In the living room, Ashley watches him, pensively nibbling her thumbnail. “Uh, are you okay?”

Jan looks at her, nods just once, silent.

“Who was it?” the girl asks.

“. . . It doesn’t matter,” he replies. “No one important.”

She just nods again, looking at him wide-eyed, breath quickening a little, biting her lower lip in anticipation as he approaches . . .

~ ~ ~

Ongoing studies and rigorous examinations . . .

“C’mon, show me what’cha got, boyo!” Rickard shouts down at Jan from over the railing.

Below, the neonate stares up at the smooth concrete walls of the pit, easily twice his height, the concrete unmarred but for the reinforced steel door set into one side, the wired-glass window barely the size of a hand.

Rickard returns his gaze, unblinking, and Jan feels his Beast taunting Jan’s own in a silent confrontation. He casts about the chamber, looking at the featureless walls, the tiny drain set in the floor, the reinforced door, the railing high above. . .

“Huh-uh, you ain’t gettin’ out till you can ride it out. I ain’t throwin’ you no lifeline, Slave.”

Within himself, Jan feels the Beast stirring, threatening to completely overwhelm him. Changing form and flying out, or some other blood trick would be a cheat, though, Rickard told him. “You gotta use it t’ push yerself, get up that wall, no claws, no wings, just you and it. Ride that bitch on out. Make it yours.”

“. . . Might throw ya somethin’ else, though.” A soft flick of a Zippo’s wheel, and a dim flame above grows into a larger one.

Ohh SHIT!

Something dark green and trailing a tongue of flame hurtles end over end from Rickard’s hand, smashing against the far wall of the pit. Glass shatters and flame blossoms as the Molotov lands, and the Beast recoils from it.

“C’mon, Slave! Y’ want out? Put a saddle on that fucker!”

Jan tries hard to ignore the leaping pool of flame several paces behind him. It’s not gonna come after me, it’s not gonna come after me—

He spares a glance over his shoulder, and the flames seem to ripple imperceptibly in his direction as he does. The Beast wails silently and retreats to the closer wall. It wants nothing but to get away, and it’ll do anything—

No, no, no, not claws, not wings, not blood, just you, fucker, c’mon!

He leaps at the wall, the tread of his boots just barely gaining traction on the slippery cement, pushing himself up . . . and the base of the railing falls just out of his reach once more. Another leap, another scramble, and his fingers graze the metal fixtures. A third leap, and his fingertips curl around the metal . . .

. . . and he slips, landing in the pit in an ungainly heap.

“Fuck!” Jan gathers himself up. Behind him, the flames have guttered out. “That’s the third one.”

Rickard nods soberly, then grins, and hoists up a small cardboard container. Inside its divided slots, three more bottles wait, clinking softly, necks stuffed with rag strips.

“Guess y’got three more chances tonight then,” the ancilla tells him. “Y’can either try it again, or stay in here overday.”

The thought of being trapped in here, even well-shielded from sunlight, away from a haven of his own choosing, without any possessions but his clothing (his phone, wallet, knife, keys, everything is in his jacket atop the railing) makes both him and the Beast uneasy.

He looks up at Rickard, nods again. “Okay. Let’s do it. I’m ready.”

“Hah. Kinda doubt that.” The Gangrel tutor holds up his jacket and its contents, dangles it in the air, tosses it out of sight behind him, then reaches for another Molotov. “Come an’ get it!”

View
Pawn to King's Rook
To seek shelter, Jan enters a Dragon's Lair . . .

The earth is cold and dry and pungent under Jan’s bare feet, pine needles making him slip a little, dead leaves clinging to his soles as he runs through night. The trees of Golden Gate Park blur by, tall dark sentinels watching him race with the others toward Ocean Beach.

Casting a glance through the trees to his left, Jan sees Garrett ahead only briefly before he slips out of sight. Behind, he can hear the heavy, but soft footfalls made by Rickard, then silence. Jan slows to a halt, eyes flickering to one side, then the other.

Okay, that kind of game . . .

Closing his eyes just briefly, he can feel the Beast stir inside, barely able to sense the presence of the other two Gangrel. C’mon, let’s do this, he urges it, urges himself, and feels the sudden hot rush of Vitae quickening, his heart hammering in an unsteady pace for a few seconds.

Jan flexes his fingers, cracking the knuckles softly, and digs his toes into the earth. From his finger- and toenails sprout long black talons, somewhere between wolf and owl, cat and raven. His joints loosen, moving with an unnatural fluidity, almost serpentine. His senses sharpen even more than they have become over the last few months; Colors brighten, sounds carry, scents sharpen.

With a soft sound of feral amusement, he bares his teeth—then runs straight at the nearest tree, digging in claws and hoisting himself up, working carefully to slip between branches and avoid scuffing cloth against bark. Come out, come out, wherever you . . .

A low crackle, a shifting of branches in the tree behind him, deliberate. That thing within him tenses, and he can feel Rickard’s own Beast lunging out, goading his. Jan’s claws sink into bark, his teeth grinding, trying to hold still, hold silent—

No Fuckfuckfuck Oh shitshitshit RUN

—and the Beast leaps, throwing out long limbs and yanking itself up close to the next tree, then another, crashing madly through the night dozens of feet above the ground.

Behind him, he can hear nothing. Rickard and Garrett have fallen completely silent again, even under his own blundering flight, and the two are closing in on him, the tunnels of Necropolis narrow and silent under the moon glowing bright silver-white above the treetops.

Jan blinks, risking a backward glance through shadowy boughs. What the fuck was that?

He ducks around a column set with burnt-out torches, drawing in his cloak and hunkering down, one hand flexing, claws ready and dagger sliding from its sheath, oiled perfectly silent.

Soft, almost inaudible rustlings, and Garrett and Rickard pass by, one to either side of the column, never casting a glance behind them at the obstacle, it’s too obvious. Jan waits, utterly still, as the two continue on. Within him, the Beast is wary, unsure.

Shit, happening again. Jan remains still, then continues on, trying to stalk the other two in turn.

As he drops to the ground within earshot of the beach’s tides, he kicks up a spray of coarse sand beneath his sandal, the hem of his tunic fluttering against the winds. Flexing his toes into the earth, he takes a deep scenting breath of salt air, sifting for traces of exhaust fumes clinging to Rickard’s mane, or the bitter tang of scorched lampblack and pinepitch at the hem of Garrett’s worn cloak.

Jan pads softly across dry grasses and cold asphalt pavement and smoothed concrete and drifted sands, looking ahead and finally seeing the other two standing near the shoreline, watching the spray of waves, white foam lit sodium-streetlamp orange as it splashes toward their toes, pauses, then retreats as if in the face of a superior.

Garrett turns first, looking back at Jan in surprise. “We thought we’d drive you here first. Clever of you to drop behind. We were sure we had you far ahead.”

“You’re a sneaky little shit, alright,” Rickard allows as he turns around, tipping his head back to breathe in the night air.

“Yeah . . . dunno,” Jan replies, looking around again. Gradually, he can feel his body shifting, the little changes in his form subsiding bit by bit. The world seems fairly settled, only the occasional flicker in the streetlamp’s light from a stray breeze tugging the torches’ flames. A lowered white Honda passes by on the Grand Highway, its late-night driver bobbing his head in time to the bass thundering in the vehicle.

Rickard and Garrett favor him with curious looks. “Maybe I . . . got lucky.” He shrugs.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Garrett says. “If Rickard thinks you’re that quiet, I’m inclined to agree.”

Jan hesitates, nods once.

“Come on, we can talk on the way back,” the Prefect says as he leads Rickard and Jan in tow. As the trio make their way back along an empty stretch of road through the Park once more, Garrett looks at him thoughtfully on and off. Rickard just keeps his gaze up and ahead, occasionally peering at details in his surroundings, all instinct.

“So,” Garrett begins. Shit. Here we go, Jan thinks as he looks to the Gangrel ancilla.

“With the upcoming Elysium, you should still consider formally becoming part of the Movement, you know.”

“I know.” Jan shakes his head almost in anticipation of seeing something else at any moment. “I just . . . don’t know if I can . . . promise anything.”

“Still indecisive, after all the working together? After me showing you how to handle yourself? After learning a little about the mission the Movement is on?” Garrett’s expression becomes slightly wary. “It’s . . . your fiancee, isn’t it. I keep telling you, it’s a fairly human idea, but we do consider human solutions. Her being Invictus, though—”

“It’s not that,” Jan interrupts a hair sharper than he intended, and Garrett’s eyebrows draw together in response. “Yeah, I’m with her, yeah, we’re . . . bound, it’s public knowledge—”

“Pervert,” Rickard’s voice echoes in a low, semi-amused, semi-disgusted grumble, followed by a deep chuff of laughter.

Jan makes a frustrated growl, eyes flickering in Rickard’s direction, then stifles anything further and speaks again. “We want to figure how to do that, our way. And we’re not gonna betray each other for our people. Friends. Allies. Whatever.”

“You’re thinking of declaring for Invictus?” Garrett’s tone is mild, but something hard lurks beneath it.

“No.”

Rickard lets out a mildly surprised ‘huh,’ and the Prefect turns his gaze on Jan once more. “Continue,” he says, voice almost too calm.

The neonate pauses, trying to choose his words, considering whether to tell either of them about the strange episodes. “I need to . . .” he falters. “I need to understand . . . more. More of everything. I’m . . . politically not all that savvy, I’m sorry, Garrett. I’m okay with helping out each Covenant for the others’ sake, or whatever, but I don’t want to end up like one of the Unbound. Your . . . ideas sound neat, and you know my points of view, I sometimes can’t shut up, yeah.”

“Then keep talking,” Garrett says. The Carthian pauses, arms folded, waiting. Rickard likewise halts, leaning on a lamppost and picking his teeth with one heavy thumbnail.

Jan nods. “Guess I can do that. Okay, I’m not a hugely religious person, even considering the circumstances. But I can handle wanting to understand things better. It’s one of the things I need to do.”

“The Dragons.” The Prefect does not ask. His expression is calm, eyes slightly narrowed, posture slumping just a bit.

“Yeah.” Jan says softly. “If I keep getting bounced around, I get a feeling I’m gonna piss off someone in the Conspiracy, or the Movement, or the Church, or the Circle. And I respect you, I just . . . don’t want to feel like a pawn. I want to make my own move. I can’t do that unless I learn to understand myself more. Other things.”

“You think all you’ve learned at our sides is a waste?” Garrett inquires suddenly.

Jan shakes his head. “Oh, hell no. No, I’d rather do what I can to help everyone out, it benefits them as much as me.” If not better than me. “But like you were saying just the other night, being free means being responsible. So I have to make my own choice. I’ll keep working with you if I can, but there are some . . . some things I need to work out.”

Rickard pushes himself away from the streetlamp (its light wobbles just slightly) and crosses the street toward them, listening in more closely. “You still owe the Movement a favor, y’know.”

Turning to him as the red-bearded man approaches, Jan nods. “Deal’s a deal. I’m not gonna go back on it.” Not that I could . . .

Garrett simply nods his head once. “I won’t say I’m not disappointed.” He pauses, and the moment stretches for several seconds. Jan waits, tension in his muscles cranking like a steel bridge cable as the Beast sinks low, waiting.

“But you do what you need,” Garret finishes. “Just be sure it’s the right decision. You’ll know how to find us.”

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

Antique leather, oiled hardwood, and polished brass fittings all creak softly as Doctor Kaintz leans the chair back behind his desk, fingers steepled in thought, pose slightly out of place for his mid-thirties appearance.

“And you’ve continued documenting these moments?”

“Yeah. As clearly as I can,” Jan says as he hands over the printed collection of notes. “‘If it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen.’”

The Doctor raises an eyebrow at him, and he shrugs. “Sorry. Just an old EMT phrase.”

“So you’re used to assiduous records,” the Dragon scholar says.

“Yes. My old work kept records of drafts; I had backups of my college work; Everything in triplicate when I worked on an ambulance.”

Kaintz nods absently as he pores over the notes Jan has provided. “Some degree of work in a heirarchy, then. Not just the informality of casual labor.”

Jan furrows his brow at the odd turn of phrase, then shrugs. “I grew up in a military household; I was a duty officer and squad leader during firefighter training; I trained other EMTs as a field officer. So . . . yeah, something . . . orderly.”

The doctor slips the paperwork into a folder, scratches a note onto its tab with an old fountain pen, looking thoughtfully over the writing, and up at Jan. “A talent for the descriptive, I see.”

“I got my degree in creative writing. Tried for something medical before I changed my mind, too. Did pretty well but for a few . . . errors.”

Closing the folder and setting it before him on the desk’s green pad, Kaintz rests his elbows to either side of the paperwork, still clutching his pen between interlaced fingers. The chair creaks softly again as he shifts his weight, peering unblinkingly at Jan across the desktop.

“Be honest,” he intones. Were some of these errors your own?"

Jan looks away as the weight of the doctor’s gaze boring into him, feeling as if being dissected by his sight alone, secrets and organs laid out for examination. Finally he looks back, returning his gaze as evenly as he can, forcing himself not to look away despite the sensation of the Beast inside him sinking back and away.

Just tell the truth. He’ll probably know anyway. “Yeah,” he finally says. “I’ll admit it. I should have been more thorough. And ultimately, I don’t know if really was what I wanted. Just what was expected of me.”

Doctor Kaintz slowly twirls the pen in his fingertips, regarding Jan a few seconds longer, before abruptly setting the pen down against the blotter, perfectly parallel to the folder, the blotter’s edge, the desktop’s ends. “Your honesty is appreciated. Your lack of clarity is troubling. Your drive is commendable. Your intent is in need of sharpening. Your versatility is interesting. Your curiosity may get you killed. Again.”

Jan narrows his eyes in puzzlement at the rapid-fire assessment. The Doctor settles back in his chair, looking at him thoughtfully.

“And yet, you make this request out of personal desire, and, let us say, professional interest. You wish to understand more of yourself, and in doing so advance our knowledge—and though you may disagree, you have a hint of political savvy about the choice.”

“Uh. Maybe?”

“You will acquire a collection of proper literature, and you will document your activities for me. I will provide you a list of texts you shall study. You will have tasks and studies here at the Chapterhouse or elsewhere as I or others in charge see fit, and you will familiarize yourself with those superior in the Order. You will learn to refine yourself, instead of being at the mercy of your nature. Your . . . attachment will be tolerated, but if it should become at all an obstacle to the Order or your studies, the consequences shall be severe.”

Shit, it’s like being back in Graduate School.

“Your wit, Mister Farkas,” Doctor Kaintz pronounces the last name clearly, properly, sharply, “shows a keen, swift mind, but one in need of refinement.”

Jan blinks. He would go pale if his skin could go any lighter. “. . . Did I say that out loud?”

“No,” the Dragon scholar says, crisply. “You didn’t.”

Jan’s eyes widen just slightly, and he nods up and down slowly. The doctor rises out of the chair in one smooth motion, and beckons the neonate to follow. “Come with me, then, Slave—”

Slave? Doctor Kaintz tilts his head back, quirking one eyebrow at Jan.

“—if you impress your instructor, perhaps you’ll be something more in due time.”

The Doctor opens a side door out of the study, waiting for Jan to step through.

“Meet your new teacher,” he says as the neonate follows him in. “Arise, Adept of the Rarefied Terror.”

Jan’s booted footfalls come to a halt on the antique rug, and the Beast draws back in wary surprise.

“Yep. Yer a sneaky little shit, I’ll grant,” the big man’s voice rumbles, and he shows a mouthful of wolfen teeth in a broad grin behind a heavy red beard, not entirely in mirth as he takes a step forward. “But you ain’t that sneaky. You gotta lot ta learn.”

Oh. Shit.

“Yeah . . . I’d say so.” Jan whispers, as his gaze shuttles between Doctor Kaintz and Rickard.

View
Work and Family
Dinner with the 'rents

Violet had been dreading tonight. Dinner with the parents, and time to let them know that she had a bit of a . . . career change. Her paid time off with RCU had come to an end and she had resigned properly a week or so ago. The 401(k) and Roth could stay as they were for a bit, until she either made some kind of fatal decision or some such. Having cut ties with the credit union, it was only a matter of time before word reached her parents.

Occasional quick dinners and phone conversations had sufficed to keep in touch up till this point but tonight—tonight was the night to give a new story and make sure they stayed away from the truth. Not surprisingly, talking about a job beating up and humiliating businessmen was probably off the table. So, a bit of invention came up with the following story.

They met at Everest in Berkeley, which had always been a favorite in the before times. Having them over to the loft might raise some questions, what with the reinforced walls of Kate’s loft and blacked out windows and reinforced doors. It was looking a bit . . . drastic at home.

So they ended up out at dinner, the fake blush of life allowing her to sip soup and nibble at bread and sauce.

“What are you up to these days? Why no lunches?” Aaron asked, blunt as usual.

“Well, I was getting . . . bored and a bit tired of corporate life when something amazing came my way. You know that I see all kinds of people in the branch right? Well—as trite as it sounds, someone made me an offer I could not resist.”

Stunned looks followed, and she plowed ahead before Aaron could scold her for such a rash move.

“I’ve been hired to be a . . . well, somewhere between a personal assistant, business manager and companion for a rather interesting individual. The hours are erratic, but I don’t have to get up at 6 a.m. anymore, which is really a plus.”

“Madame Walker (her professional name of course) used to come in all the time, talk to me about little things during her transactions, and it seemed like she was always keeping an eye on me—watching how I handled problems and disruptions with other members.”

“After a particularly interesting incident which involved me throwing out an abusive member while keeping the rest of the branch under control she gave me her business card and said to contact her if I ever got tired of banking. When I gave her a call, it all seemed a bit crazy. She wanted someone to help her take care of the day-to-day things—to make sure her life was running smoothly. I checked out her references, and when she offered me a rather . . . generous salary I decided to jump ship.”

“I know it sounds crazy, and it is a little bit. But I was getting stagnant at RCU. No upward mobility unless Jacob moved on, same thing every day, and limited pay increases. But, they loved me, and with my track record, should I ever want to go back to that field they would welcome me.”

Still stunned, her parents just gape. They’ve listened to the whole thing and seem to be wondering if it’s all just a joke.

“How generous are you talking about?” Judith asks cautiously.

“A 10k signing bonus, 80k per year and benefits. I have a year contract, with an option to renew next year with a raise if we’re both happy with the arrangement.”

“Hot damn! Well, I sure hope you know what you’re doing kiddo.” Aaron looks a bit proud and worried at the same time.

“I know it’s a lot to take in—I’m still reeling myself some days. But I love the schedule—work all night, sleep most of the day away. I’m really good at this, and I’m so happy to be doing something different for a change. When you can recite credit card agreements in your sleep, or rattle off all the requirements for an account and not even remember what you’ve said because it’s automatic? It’s kinda time for a change.”

“I guess I can see that honey, I just worry about the long term.”

“It’s OK mom, I still look great on paper to any financial institution, and my 401k was fully vested so I didn’t lose anything.”

Eventually, and with not a little bit of coaxing on Violet’s part, the conversation moves back to slightly more normal topics—what moon-bats the politicians are, how nice the folk dancing was and how those darn Ohio relatives are just a pain in the ass.

“Well, I guess you won’t need any more help with the wedding!” Aaron chuckles, not a bit hopefully.

“Nope, actually you can keep the money you guys were going to contribute. I’ll still need a bit of help with the planning, but now I’ve got enough cash to pull this off—and a proper honeymoon!” Talking about the wedding gives Violet a bit more of a glow, and seeing their daughter happy- Aaron and Judith relax a bit.

View
The Longest Night
A winter night finds Jan visiting every Covenant . . .

6:37 p.m.

“I’m pleased to see you return here, Mister Farkas.” Doctor Kaintz gives the smallest of nods as Jan follows him into the lab. The neonate shrugs, considers his words as the Dragon scientist raises one eyebrow, then finally speaks.

“I’m . . . curious, I guess,” he says cautiously. “I’m willing to donate some of my time and help . . . I mean, as long as you’re compensating.”

“How mercenary of you,” Kaintz replies archly.

“Doctor . . . I’m . . . we’re all new to this, me, Violet, the rest. Until a few months ago I didn’t even realize this was . . .” Jan waves a hand vaguely. “. . . real. And I don’t exactly have a lot to go on right now. I’m, uh, curious to learn more, I’m not stupid, and if there are ways to get something out of this—I mean, it sounds like you all run on favors and status, not just money or, or—”

“Blood?” the Doctor raises both eyebrows as one of his unnamed assistants wheels over a tray set with instruments and vials. “Astute of you, Mister Farkas. Many of your lineage lack intellectual curiosity, or find it clouded by their . . . condition. It’s good that you seek to transcend it.”

Jan shrugs. “Thank you. I think.”

“A pity you’ve chosen to fall in with Mister Garrett and his kin, though.”

For a brief moment the Beast stirs, hackles twitching at the implied slight, and Jan clenches his teeth, looking away.

“I intend no insult,” the doctor continues as he inserts a vial into a vacuum syringe. “Merely that Prince Matthias and Prefect Joshua do not precisely see eye-to-eye. It does you some credit to seek someone of your lineage to gain greater understanding, true, but you could learn so much more if you devoted yourself elsewhere.”

Jan lets out an unnecessary breath, shrugging. “Well, if you know a way to keep me from losing it at the wrong ti—ach!” He yelps involuntarily as the doctor jabs the needle into his shoulder, and Vitae flows thickly into the vial.

“Well, you certainly seem to have some control over ‘losing it’. I’ve seen some goaded to frenzy at even lesser provocation than that,” Kaintz says as he withdraws the needle and carefully slips the vial into a centrifuge. Sparks crackle from a small electrode carefully positioned over the centrifuge, a faint static haze surrounding the glass tube as the device begins to spin up, bearings humming smoothly.

Jan watches the device curiously as Kaintz makes a few notes on an iPad. “Thanks. Again. . . . I think.”

“You’re welcome,” the doctor says drily. “Now, have you noticed any further episodes like the ones you and your coterie described previously?”

“No. Nothing yet. I’ll let you know if I do.” Jan rubs his shoulder, adjusting his t-shirt. The pinhole made by the wide-bore needle has already disappeared. “I want to find out what’s going on just as much as you do. More, even.”

Doctor Kaintz’ features twitch in a brief, cool smile. “All in good time, I hope, then, yes? Now. Let us have a brief examination of your abilities.”

“Hm?” Jan looks up from the humming, crackling centrifuge and the other bizarre apparatus arranged around it. “Like what?”

The doctor snaps his fingers, and the nameless human assistant returns, holding a few bags of donated human blood. “The talents of your lineage. Show me how your body can change. Measuring your prodigious talents is a first step. I assure you—” he casts a hand at the bags— “I won’t let you exhaust yourself into a mindless raving hunger.” He gives another small smile that barely reaches pale blue eyes. “I don’t think.”

Jan almost sighs, then presses his lips together, nodding, eyeing the blood packs warily. “Okay . . . here we go.”

8:58 p.m.

Jan hits the kill switch on his bike, and the engine cuts out with a soft whine as he maneuvers it to park on the curb outside the high-rise. Dismounting and pulling the keys from the ignition, he turns to look at the grey-coated and capped doorman, who stares back at him placidly. Under his jacket, his skin still itches, as if not fully solid after the repeated changes Doctor Kaintz observed. The donated blood was brackish, the taste of life faint and bland, leaving him sated, but only barely. Like eating McDonald’s or cheap Chinese. I need something better. Maybe Ashley is up late—

He unstraps the helmet, pulls it off and shakes his head at his own thoughts. “God, does it ever stop being fucking weird?”

The doorman tilts his head, watching Jan talk to himself, then squares up once more as he approaches. “Evening, sir. You have some business here?”

Jan looks up, breaking out of his reverie and tapping the satchel. "Uh, yes. Delivery for “Mister Matthew Lund”, from Do—"

“He’s expecting you,” the doorman cuts him off, quickly opening the heavy brass-framed door and stepping to one side. “Sixteenth floor, suite seven, sir.”

Jan blinks and enters, nonplussed. The quiet elevator ride up is devoid of muzak, only the humming of the motor and the soft rushing of air conditioning that fails to raise gooseflesh on his skin. On the sixteenth floor, two dark-suited men stand outside the suite where the meeting is being held. As he slips in past the duo, the soft conversation about the new transit hub construction quiets, the mention of bribes here, kickbacks there, quiet leverage applied to this or that person, all falls silent. A few heads turn, observing the new figure in boots, jeans, riding jacket; a harsh contrast to gabardine, vicuna, Italian leather.

Amid the clustered attaches and executives, Matthias stands in obsidian black tailored suit, glacial white shirt, midnight blue silk tie, polished silver cufflinks, fine bespoke leather shoes. He lifts his gaze from the notes one of the Heralds is briefing him on, and raises a hand, beckoning Jan closer with a small gesture. Jan approaches, face dead blank, but the Beast inside crouches warily.

“You have the parcel from Doctor Kaintz.” Prince Matthias states. Not a question.

Jan bows his head, carefully, unsure whether to look away, but holds out the sealed manila envelope. One of the attendants takes it smoothly from him, opening and sorting its contents onto a nearby desk.

“Dismissed,” the Prince says, but as Jan bows again, politely, he raises a hand, stalling him. “A moment, actually.”

Oh fuck.

“We appreciate the work you do. Perhaps, in the near future, we may have need of your services for a delivery out of the area. A short journey, I assure you, but you will be given appropriate recompense.” He directs a small nod to one of the other nearby figures, who hands a small, but bill-stuffed envelope to Jan. “You are traveling across the bay tonight?”

“Yes,” Jan would swallow if he could but his mouth and throat are dry as the Gobi. “. . . Sir.”

“Another evening with the Prefect?”

“How did—uh, yes,” Jan replies. “Sir,” he finds himself saying again, out of some bizarre reflex.

“Send him my regards. And if he should inquire as to anything you saw or heard here . . .”

Jan’s eyes flick to one side, avoiding the gaze of the Prince, of anyone else in the room. Violet is nowhere in sight. Probably elsewhere with Madame Kerensky. Shit, shit, shit, where are you love . . .

“My lips are seal—” he begins.

“Please, feel free to tell him any detail he asks for.”

“. . . Sir?”

“Dismissed.” Matthias turns smoothly back to the attache and his notes, and the conversations gradually resume. Jan backs out of the room, chewing his lip again (dammit, that chapped spot keeps coming back) as he makes his way to the elevator.

11:44 p.m.

Prefect Joshua slings the towel around his shoulders, an affectation only, due to the lack of any sweat or blood, and watches Jan intently. In the ring, meanwhile, Kiko and another Kindred circle each other, making occasional feints and jabs.

“So, they’ve got plans for the new hub? Did you see anything in particular?”

Jan looks at him, then back at the ring. “Yeah. Some notes about BART, someone was saying something about the new union rep, someone else mentioned Homeland Security . . .”

“Tell me everything,” Garret says, voice patient but firm. In the ring, Kiko leaps forward, a diminutive raven-haired blur, fists pummeling her opponent’s torso like a hail of mallets on a side of beef.

Jan recounts the brief time in the meeting room, giving every possible detail.

“And you’re saying he just let you walk out without ensuring your silence?”

“Yeah.” Jan shrugs, raising his hands helplessly. “I don’t even—”

“Feh, ’s gotta be bullshit,” Rickard rumbles from behind him, higher up on the bleachers. “He wouldn’t just tell you to spill it. You gotta be hidin’ something.”

Jan turns around, craning his neck, opening his mouth in mingled surprise and faint anger. “I’m telling you, that’s what happened,” he says, indignant despite the red-haired giant looming over him. Rickard just narrows his eyes, mouth quirking to one side.

“If that’s the truth, then I’ll take your word on it, Jan,” Garrett says. “But it has to be the truth. Are you certain?”

Caught between the two Carthians, Jan can only shrug again. “I’m not lying. It’s exactly how it happened.”

Garrett nods, calmly. “Alright. Let’s go over it again, just once more. Start at the beginning.”

Shit. Jan raises his head, watching Kiko and her opponent collide once more, a flurry of jabs and blocks. “Okay, so I went in . . .”

1:06 a.m.

The descending gibbous moon outshines the few stars visible above, but amid the densest part of Golden Gate Park’s trees, much of the city’s lights are hidden, leaving a scattering of starlight and the very occasional Ursid meteor.

Fuck, I hope no one steals my bike.

Left far behind on the outskirts of the park at the edge of the Sunset district, even locked, chained to a pole and hidden under a tarp, any asshole could make off with the motorcycle in minutes. The thought of someone transgressing on his personal property sets Jan’s teeth on edge and his fangs lengthen. A brief scenario plays out in his mind, of following the scent of thief, of motorcycle exhaust, of the heat of tires on pavement, of running down whoever would dare steal it and tearing their throat wide open, the spray of hot blood—

What the fuck is wrong with me? Christ . . .

Ahead, in a dense thicket, Jan can hear soft voices, the faint illumination of small lanterns casting thin fingers of shadow and light toward him. As he approaches, some of the voices stop, and multiple figures raise their heads, eyes reflecting lamplight. A single soft heartbeat thrums steadily almost outside the range of hearing, coming from one young mortal who sits barefoot in the middle of the clearing, fingering a tiny ziploc baggie.

“Jan!” A quiet female voice calls, and Livia approaches, giving him a wink. “Nice of you to join us. Even if you did almost interrupt the closing ritual.” She glances at the young man in the middle, who gasps, dropping the little plastic envelope and reaching for something only he can see. “I think we’re about ready . . . but first . . .”

She turns, and gestures at a few others, who move to extinguish the lanterns, plunging the clearing into darkness, broken only by faint silver moonlight and even dimmer orange citylight. The young man in their midst lets out a sound between whimper and giggle, and the assembled draw closer.

Livia hands Jan a small sealed envelope. “See that this gets to Bishop Ramirez. Don’t worry,” she reassures him with a pat on his leather-jacketed shoulder. “Just some personal correspondence. Philosophical stuff.” Her smile turns into a broad, feral grin. “You can stay and watch, if you want—as long as you don’t interfere.”

Jan backs away slowly, tucking the envelope into a pocket. “Yeah . . . wouldn’t dream of it,” he says, eyes fixed upon the human, whose face is lit with an alloy of ecstatic wonder and terrified surprise.

“Say hi to Violet for me. And let her know the offer’s still open. Strictly limited-time, though.” Livia tips him a wink, and bares her fangs as she turns back to the Circle attendants to the ritual. “Mistress Hekate,” she calls. “Let us share the vision of this one, this young king, blessed in your eyes on this night.”

Her words lapse into a language Jan cannot understand, syllables and consonants rolling and twining around one another, then silent as she lunges, biting into the man’s flesh, and the rest of the Kindred follow suit, each taking just a sip. Yet, as each sits back, their eyes widen, pupils blown open against bloodshot white corneas, their subject shuddering in pleasure and pain from the group Kiss bestowed upon him by their feeding. As one, they tilt their heads backward, hands linked in a circle around him, and Livia’s head rolls on its shoulders, leading the group in a call-and-response chant as whatever is in the man’s blood takes effect.

The Beast stirs within Jan at the smell of blood, the quickening of the young man’s heartbeat, the gathering of something ancient and hungry, and he continues to back away, watching in mingled fascination, awe, and bone-deep terror, until he turns and bolts, running quietly over dead leaves and pine needles and humus.

1:44 a.m.

Outside the church, a few of the Faith loiter on the steps after the conclusion of the midnight mass, intermingled with those attending to pay lip service. Across the street, Jan watches, tapping the envelope in his hand.

Can’t be any worse than . . . whatever that was. Fuck it.

He crosses the street, heads to the steps, pauses. One of the assembled—A skinny figure with a narrow, pinched face . . . Phillip perhaps, his true visage hidden?—turns and watches him approach.

“Personal message . . . for the Bishop,” Jan says, holding out the wax-sealed envelope.

A firm hand falls on Jan’s shoulder from behind, and he stiffens. “I shall take that,” a voice solemnly intones. “A missive . . . from DeWitt, no?”

This close, Jan can smell incense, old parchment, heavy woolen garments, but does not turn to face Bishop Esteban. He just nods, turning his head slightly and holding out the envelope. The hand lifts from his shoulder, plucking the envelope from his grasp. A soft crack of the wax seal breaking, of paper sliding against paper. A soft ‘hm’ as the Bishop reads the letter. Then a crumpling sound, so quick as to be a snap as a fist closes around the paper.

“Go now, young sinner. Think on your place in the eyes of God, and of Longinus.”

The heavy presence of the Bishop moves away, and Jan turns to leave.

“We will be watching.”

That’s what I was afraid of. Jan re-crosses the street, forcing himself to move at as unhurried a pace as he can manage. A soft boom of heavy wooden doors closing makes him turn back, and the chapel is now closed, lights extinguished, the building now all cold granite and shadows. A soft almost-sound, like falling snow or owls’ wings, flutters overhead.

Jan quickly climbs to the saddle of his bike, pulling on his helmet and starting the engine. With a twist of the throttle, the engine’s growl raises to a snarl and he quickly departs, trying hard not to look back again.

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