~ ~ ~
Hands-on tutelage from other advanced students . . .
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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!”