Owls & Ashes

Connection
Mila's Web

Adrian Pryor gathers the pages before him, taps them together on the desk. After a fair bit of deliberation, she’d decided that typescript, printed on a fine cream stock and presented in a leather folder was the way to go. Adrian’s era may have been the tacky, computer-obsessed world of the 1980s stockbroker, but the man himself brought a gravitas to the table that made the very notion of a PowerPoint seem mortifying. She had of course included a copy of her presentation on a thumb drive as well, with relevant links, because failing to do so for a presentation of this sort, of this content, would be equally mortifying. And, she has learned, the dead can still be mortified. All too well.

“An impressive presentation Miss Goodlove. Most . . . unexpected. How did this come to you, if one might enquire?”. One might.

One month earlier:

Jesus, she thought. This is getting ridiculous. I have this vague outline of what I want to do, but I’m totally fucking lost. Why can’t he give me more help? If I succeed, he’s only going to look good. (And, she adds to herself, if I fail he’s going to want to be as distant as possible from the train wreck. Which is all the answer I need.) Fuck. Let’s go over this again. Maybe I’ve just been roiling this over inside my head too much. Get it down in writing. See if that helps.

Feeling a little foolish, she opens up a text box on her laptop. Let’s brainstorm this fucker.

Build a network. Build on my intrinsic interest in social networks. I’m good with people, I’m good at networking humans, and good at seeing connections.

How to I turn that to my advantage? How do I bring the best value to Invictus? To myself? To Adrian?

What head do I need to deliver on a platter?

Politicians? I have some of those in my pocket, but that’s a way to gather too much attention. Masquerade breach. Bad. Bankers? Violet can work that angle way better than I, not really my jam. Come on, how do we do this?

A soft chime. That weird text box opened up as it had weeks before when she was feeling equally at sea. What the hell? Oh well, fortune favors the bold. Except when it gets them staked out to enjoy a nice sunrise, of course. She stops, fingers hovering above the keyboard. Huh. How to begin? At the beginning, I guess, she thinks. Why not?

>Hello

>>Hello, Miss Goodlove. Interesting questions.

Great, she thinks. Let’s not go all Twilight Zone Syndrome and start saying things like, “How can you see what’s on my desktop?” Take this for what it is, don’t freak out.

>So, does the NSA have an undead division these days?

>>Very funny, Miss Goodlove.

She can practically hear the lack of amusement.

>Are you here to help me or taunt me?

>>That’s hardly a useful question. You are here to help yourself, and to help . . . your superiors. There are links. There are Links. Follow the lynx. Your answer is neither in front of you nor very far away.

The text box closes. Well, that was weird. Although once you’re a blood-sucking undead monster, do mysterious IMs even register on the weird scale anymore? Links. Links. Hmmm . . .

She opens Google and, on a whim, hits the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.

A seemingly unrelated page of search results. Fuck. This is useless. About to close the window and go back to pacing and fretting, she stops. Instinct. Patterns. Links. Give it a look. Turn off the critical mind, let the right brain do its thing.

The first story is about Facebook’s board donating millions to local schools and charities. The second, your basic Bill Gates Saves Africa with Help from Bono type thing. The third, a profile of a San Francisco real-estate developer who donates a significant portion of his filthy lucre to affordable housing advocacy.

Links. Well, I guess we have a little research to do. Thanks, mysterious and vaguely ominous online presence!

Three weeks earlier:

She checks her look one last time in the plate-glass windows. Professional, a little sexy, more than a little intimidating. Just the way she likes it. Severely tailored and very expensive black suit, heels almost too high for a business executive . . . but not quite. Calfskin briefcase. It’s late but not that late. Funny how powerful men are willing to meet a little outside standard business hours when asked by a sultry voice that just somehow sounds like money.

She strides purposefully in to the bar. Ah, there’s the mark, at a table to the side of the room. Funny how this feels just like escorting . . . I’ll get all dressed up, meet you in a bar, pretend to like you, and leave with your money. Or, in this case, something a lot more valuable than your money.

“Mr. Castiel? Mila Goodlove.”

“Miss Goodlove! So happy to meet you.” He extends a hand. She exerts just enough will to warm her flesh a tad, no need to frighten or disconcert him with an icy grip. “Can I get you a drink?”

“Oh please,” she says. “Let me get the first one. My associates have been . . . quite generous with expenses.”

He smiles. “Well then, don’t want to disappoint them. I’ll have a Crown on the rocks.”

With a smile, she heads to the bar, aware that’s he’s watching her rear as she walks, accentuating that movement a bit. Get him slightly flustered. Always a good strategy. At the crowded bar, it’s easy enough to shield the drink with her body, place a hand over it as though to keep from spilling, and dig a suddenly slightly sharper than usual nail into her wrist. There, a few precious drops of blood. Nice of him to choose a dark colored liquor.

She slides back to the table, hands him his drink, puts her own Campari and soda down. “The next one’s on me,” he smiles.

The head tilt, the half smile, the eye contact. Fish in a fucking barrel. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t stay long tonight but . . . I do hope that our talk goes well and we’ll have occasion to meet again. To review the papers, that is.”

“Of course, the papers. Do tell me more.” He’s hooked. The potent brew of sex and money has him, even before he ingests the drink. But even now, he’s raising it to his lips, taking a long draw. Yes, One down. Two to go. Come on, snake eyes. Baby needs new cred.

“My . . . associates are very interested in finding the right charities to endow. As I’m sure you know far better than I, there are so many questionable organizations out there. We want to be sure we’re putting our money somewhere it can do the most good.”

“That’s what I’m here to help folks do.”

“Exactly. And you have a wonderful reputation. Well worth your rather . . . impressive fees from what I hear.”

“I like to think so. Might I inquire who precisely these associates are?”

“For right now, they’d prefer to remain anonymous. You know how it is—venture capital, tech start-up, possible Google buy-out, NDAs everywhere. Such a bore. I’m empowered to speak for them, and I think you’ll be very satisfied with our terms and our organization.”

“Well, as you know, my expertise is in matching donors with the recipients that will best benefit from their largesse. I balance the company’s interests, the potential tax and goodwill benefits, and the good that can be done with the funds. I hate to use the cliché ‘everybody wins,’ but in this case, it really does apply.”

“Including you, Mr. Castiel.”

“But of course. After all, I get to have drinks with lovely ladies.”

She smiles. It’s what you do. Like clockwork. “So, did you have the paperwork we talked about?”

“Of course.” He hands her a thick pasteboard folder, lets his hand linger a bit as he passes it off. Men. So predictable. Her flesh is easily warm to his touch. Saw it coming a mile away.

“I’m so sorry to have to make this such a short meeting, but after I’ve had a chance to review this, I do hope we can meet again?” Cock the head, half smile, lower the voice a note or two. “After all, you do owe me a drink.”

He watches her walk away. Watches hungrily. He wants . . . yeah. He just wants.

Present day:

Adrian nods, taps the folder against his desk. “I see. Charitable organizations. But what of the poor schoolchildren whose futures might be affected?”

“Fortune favors the bold, Master Pryor.”

“Fortune favors the monstrous, Miss Goodlove. Believe me, I know. Do go on.”

One week earlier:

The final time, she doesn’t even need to make up an excuse to meet. Their second assignation had been again over drinks, to discuss the terms of his contract, and the sort of charities her mysterious associates might wish to endow. She’d chosen a darker bar, risked opening her vein a bit more, dosed his drink well. The look on his face as she left after their somewhat perfunctory meeting was . . . oddly invigorating. Like she was the last drink of water in the world, and he’d been crawling across the desert for weeks.

This time, a few days after that, he called her, with the flimsiest of excuses. Some interesting opportunities to examine, a few loose ends to tie up before signing a contract. Clearly saying whatever he thought it would take to get her to meet him, words almost meaningless, but underneath them the real meaning thrummed clearly enough: “I need it. Please. Please. You have to help me, give me more.”

She didn’t even bother with the nicety of dosing a drink this time. In the dark corner of a Valencia Street hipster bar, she just sliced her palm with a casual flick, trailed a languid finger through the blood, held it out to him. He opened his mouth hungrily, and she could almost hear something click, some safety being eased off, his will and self-control slipping away.

“What do you want?” he almost whispered, reeling from the transformation coursing through his blood.

“Funny you should ask. Let’s talk about these billionaire clients of yours. I find them . . . fascinating.”

Present day:

“So, you have your very own pet financial advisor. How cute. What do you plan to do with him?”

“Well, as I’m sure you’ve seen from the file, his advice and guidance are crucial to the charitable programs for dozens of top tech companies. With a very few exceptions, these multimillionaires don’t care about charity. What they care about is getting a tax break and looking good in the news. If he advises them to fund a worthy-seeming charity, they won’t dig deeply. Part of his job is to vet the recipients, and he has decades of reputation banked for doing just that.”

“And I suppose you have ideas as to what those charities should be?”

“We don’t want to get greedy. As I believe you told me, immortality is the ultimate long con. We’ll let him keep endowing all the usual suspects with . . . just a few tweaks. My associate Miss Madrone has developed some holdings in affordable housing. Always a good cause. The arts are a fine beneficiary, and I imagine Madame Kerensky might have some suggestions. And, of course, it might be beneficial for the Invictus to establish some charitable operations as . . . ah . . .”

“A front?”

“That’s . . . a way of putting it.” She smiles. He gives her that quirk of the lips that she’s coming to take as a sign of approval. You damn sexy undead bastard, she thinks.

“Thank you.” She looks at him. Was that in response to . . .? Oh hell, who knows. He smiles like an apex predator, continues. “This is interesting work. You would be well encouraged to continue to develop this asset.”

“I won’t disappoint you, Mr. Pryor.”

“That would be in your best interest, Miss Goodlove.”

Later that night:

Okay, that was pretty much tacit approval to start sourcing and placing donations. Maybe investigate starting some sort of false-flag do-gooder organization to funnel tech funds to the Invictus. Just one little thread left dangling. She tries to figure out how to pop open that mysterious chat box, but to no avail. Nothing in her browser history or hard drive recent items. Hmmm. How do I summon you, little demon box?

She starts typing terms into Google. Links. Network. Pattern. Lynx. The results box fills with random things . . . golf links, networking organizations, a fund to save endangered wildcats. Then, there, bait taken. The chat box flicks open.

>>Looking for something, Miss Goodlove?

>I don’t know, am I?

>>There’s no need to be too clever. Do you want to continue?

>I’ve heard that fortune favors the bold.

>>Are you feeling bold? More importantly, are you feeling fortunate?

The search screen blanks. All that’s left is the Google logo and the “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.

She smiles. You know, I think I am.

View
Step into My Parlour
Mila's Proposition

Theme song for this interlude:

3 a.m., the Haven

Mila blinks, startles, realizes she’s been staring blankly at her laptop long enough that the screen is dimming. Fuck, how late is it? Or, rather, how early? She sighs. Funny how that reflex remains even after then need for breath is gone. Once again, she thinks, I seem to have flung myself headfirst into something that might just be more than I can handle. Oh well, not like that’s anything new. Just . . . this time the stakes seem a fuck of a lot higher. Stakes. Heh. That’s funny. No it isn’t. Jesus Christ, girl, focus. There has to be a pattern here that will lead me to my quarry. If only I knew who he was.

48 hours earlier

Pushing open the Camarilla Room’s impressively anonymous front door, Mila feels the familiar rush of nervousness and anticipation. After her group’s unexpected audience with the Prince, the ghoul servers seem to be treating her with a modicum of caution rather than their usual disdain, still . . . this feels like a test. Everything feels like a test. With terrible consequences for failure.

The impeccably composed ghoul maître d’ nods to her, cocks his brilliantined head towards what she’s come to think of as Adrian’s booth. Pull yourself together, girl. It’s a job interview. It’s always a goddamn job interview, she thinks. She approaches, consciously projecting confidence that stops short of cockiness, deference that avoids any tinge of subservience. I am not your equal, but nor am I your servant. As she reaches the curtained alcove she pauses, waits until he gestures for her to sit.

“Miss Goodlove. How good of you to come.”

Impossible to read him. This is their first real contact since she made her audacious request of the Prince and had it unexpectedly granted. She’d expected Matthias would maybe allow her some sort of provisional status, set some tests to pass to be considered, but no. Big casino. The genie grants your one wish. Yeah, she thinks, we all know how well those stories usually turn out.

“I’m honored to do so, Mr. Pryor. I . . . hope that I was not too . . . forward . . . the other night? I would of course have discussed such a significant issue with you had the Prince’s offer not been such a surprise.”

Steely eyes meet hers. As ever, there seems to be a hint of amusement behind the calculated gaze. She’s always been good at reading people, but she simply cannot tell if it’s a sign of some affection or interest, or just the amusement a cat feels as it toys with its prey.

“I must admit, Miss Goodlove, I had not expected matters to proceed quite so quickly. But the Prince of course has his reasons, and we are but his humble servants.”

“Of course. I hope to be only a credit to you as a mentor and sponsor.”

“You have no other option. Now, I had asked you for a proposal. Do you have something for me?”

“I have the initial concept. I would like to get your feedback and input before proceeding further. I know your time is valuable and while I’m happy to take up as much of it as you have to give I rather imagine efficiency is one of the ways to your, ah, heart."

Was that an overstep? Too overtly flirtatious? Frivolous? Stay calm, meet his gaze, slight smile that says, “a little joke.”

After what feels like an eternity, his lips quirk slightly. "Indeed. You do seem to have a …way with people. But remember, I am not people. "

“Of course.” The moment passes. She still cannot tell if there is some bizarre form of flirtation between them, or just a power dynamic so strong and instinctive that it feels like that eternal dance. File that away. Not the time to think about it now.

“As you know, I’ve been working to create a . . . pool . . . of policymakers in the financial and political realms, and to build a web of information that will be of use to the Invictus in dealings with the mortal realm.”

“Indeed. Your…shall we say…diplomatic missions, have been impressive. You appear to have developed quite the following among several very powerful men…” He stops, that slightly amused quirk again. “And at least one very powerful lady.”

Mila’s carefully maintained composure slips just a fraction. Sofia. That was…unexpected. Female clients are almost unheard of, but perhaps once a CEO is that rich and powerful, she takes her privilege like a man. Sofia’s laptop had yielded a wealth of Intel on global financial strategy. The hours before Mila commanded her to sleep and forget everything were…well, ironically, rather unforgettable. At least for Mila. Damn.

“Thoughts, Ms. Goodlove?”

“Ah, no, a momentary distraction. Apologies.”

She takes a moment to compose herself. Good thing Kindred can’t blush.

“While I am pleased that you feel my efforts have to date been of use to the Invictus, they’ve also been a bit . . . scattershot. My sphere of influence is limited to those mortals with . . . certain appetites. Luckily this seems to be more the norm than the exception in the corridors of power, but still. It’s a strategy that can only go so far.”

He nods almost imperceptibly.

“To build a more strategic, long-term network I think I’ll need a few things. Most importantly at this juncture, I need, if you will, a man on the inside."

Again, the unwavering gaze.

“Do you? Explain.”

“Well, I can only do so much in the hours of darkness and as an outsider. I have faith in my ability to build a social network and sphere of influence over the long term. After all the Masquerade is, if you’ll pardon the phrase, perhaps the ultimate long con."

Was that a smile? Almost?

“But to that end,” she went on, in full business presentation mode, "I think that a judiciously chosen ghoul could be immeasurably helpful. Someone who can operate during the daytime, do my investigative work in the day, and who has access to places I don’t. Can’t.”

“And who might you choose for this . . . great honor?” Again, the slight quirk of the lips.

“That’s the next step. I wanted to be sure you felt this was a valuable avenue of exploration before I took it any further.”

“It is an . . . intriguing concept. Of course, you would have to choose very wisely so as to avoid any possible breach of Masquerade. However, I feel comfortable telling you that I am not the only member of the Inner Circle who has noticed your potential. I’ve been encouraged by . . . interested parties . . . to encourage you in developing your talents."

Her immediate instinct is to ask, “by whom?” but knows that would be gauche at the very least. If he wants me to have information…

“…then he’ll tell you,” Adrian says, with his predatory smile. “I expect a report on possible options at your earliest convenience. Do not disappoint me.”

“Is this a test?”

“Miss Goodlove, you know better than to ask such a foolish question. Everything is a test.”

Later

Driving home from the meeting, her thoughts roil almost incoherently.

I need to find something really good. Obviously, can’t be a truly public figure . . . someone’s going to notice if a leading political figure or top banker suddenly gets all . . . ghouly. We need the power behind the throne, the man who whispers in the ear. The trusted but almost invisible nonentity. How high do I go? What’s the best prize I can deliver Invictus without totally overreaching and looking like an idiot. Her mental list of possibles looks like a conspiracy theorist’s watchlist . . . the Bilderberg Group. The Trilateral Commission. The G-20. Geez, why not add the Elders of Zion and the Illuminati and have done with it.

Haven, 4 a.m.

After a couple of nights of research, gathering background information on networks of power both overt and less so, trying to figure out who in her growing stable of influencers is connected to whom, and how, she’s got reams of data, but no strong direction. Got to put it all together, find the pattern, follow the thread. Fuck you Theseus, why is this so difficult?

She’s just trying to go intuitive now. Turn off your brain, slide between the search terms, just try to get a feel for these groups, who belongs, who doesn’t belong but always seems to be on the sidelines. Airline reservations, hotel check-ins, security camera feeds . . . weave it together, find the pattern.

>Looking for something?

What the fuck? I’m not logged into G-chat . . . where the hell did that text box pop up from? She’s so on edge, her first thought is oh man, is the NSA tracking vampires now? Did I just trigger some alarm? Can the undead even end up on no-fly lists? Oh well, there’s a reply field. Nothing ventured nothing gained. I always did want my very own FBI file.

>>Just browsing, thanks.

>Very amusing. Answer the question.

>>Who are you?

>Perhaps a friend. Perhaps not.

>>How do we proceed then?

>Good question, Miss Goodlove.

View
Nightmare
A Ghoul's Bad Dream?

Several pairs of eyes, golden and green, regarded Joseph with dispassionate interest as he cracked open the door of the house and slipped inside, squinting against the bright morning light. Carefully securing the locks, he sealed the door and turned to look back at the cats—and dog—watching him as he made his way through the living room.

Despite his newfound . . . condition . . . he was still in need of some rest. Mila’s Vitae was still keeping him going almost all day and night—the thought of even another tiny drop of her on his tongue sent a shiver up his spine—but every once in awhile, the need to sleep would kick in, leaving him to pause, stretch, give a jaw-cracking yawn.

The soft occasional yowp from the housecats brought him back to the present moment, and he nodded to them. “Hang on, hang on . . . let’s get you all something to eat first, huh?” Dispensing kibble into dishes, refilling water bowls, giving the animals brief pats and skritches, watching the dog as he watched the cats, then looked to Joseph as if to ask, ‘What about me?’

“Nope, haven’t forgotten you either . . .” Joseph set out another dish of food for the dog as well, pausing to let out another wide yawn, and then shuffle sleepily down the hallway (past the cellar door, locked from inside, its occupants downstairs laying in state, silent, awaiting sunset), and into the bedroom, where he stopped just long enough to unlace and pull off his boots, before looking mutely at the mattress and tangled blankets (rarely occupied these days, especially by more than one), then slumped into the bed, pulling blankets and pillow around him into a nest and closing his eyes.

Just a couple of hours. All I need—

Smooth, blank, gentle darkness and silence of sleep . . .

“Open. Hm. Open? Hmm. Open. Open, open, open . . .”

Soft breeze and the sounds of nature and daily city life drifted in from open windows, curtains gently stirring. But he’d sealed all the doors and windows before he slept.

Hadn’t he?

Joseph shifted on his back, tried to sit up. Pressure on his chest. Pinned in place. It was suddenly hard to draw breath. He opened his eyes, lids parting in glacial slowness. Beheld a nightmare perched atop his chest.

“And doesn’t this remind you of when you were a little boy?” A figure, muscled, in jeans and t-shirt, hovering over him. Eyes a terrifyingly brilliant yellow-gold, regarding him with dispassionate interest. The same man from nights before, tearing open the throat of one of the Kindred. Bounding across rooftops like a character from a Chinese wuxia kung-fu movie. Watching him now, eyes wide.

“Asleep. Dreams of something holding you down . . . breathing your breath. Stealing your secrets. Giving you its instead. Have you been studying your lessons, my little boy? Mmm, no, not mine, certainly. HER little boy? Yesss. You’ve been a good boy for mummy, haven’t you?”

Joseph could only regard the figure, the face, with terrified stillness. He couldn’t get away. He shifted on the bed, but his hands were crossed at the wrist, pinioned under another hand, pressing to his chest with bone-bending force.

“And you were such a good boy, to give me such a wondrous gift,” the speaker continued. “Even hand-delivered!”

Timothy showed his teeth in a broad grin, parted his jaws, ran the tip of tongue over the points of his teeth.

“What—” Joseph got out, before Timothy put another hand over his mouth, lifted away, pressed a claw-like fingertip to his lips.

“Ssshhh . . .”

Timothy was one of them. The Kindred. The vampires. Or something like them. Sunlight was spilling into the room along with fresh breezes—every window opened—and yet here he was, wasn’t he?

Timothy turned, peering around the room, one long arm still holding Joseph to the mattress, hands pinned to sternum. WIth his other arm, he stretched out, pulling open a drawer, rifling through it.

“Open—” tossing out a handful of clothing.

Another drawer. “Open—” more clothing.

His eyes widened further as his gaze passed over the glass-windowed cabinet full of artifacts. “Ah-hahhh . . .” His tongue ran over his teeth again, before drawing back in, teeth clacking together in a feral smile.

“Ssstay . . .” Timothy warned Joseph, raising his hand from his chest in a ticking “ah-ah-ah!” gesture before returning his attention to the cabinet.

“What are you—”

“Shush!” Casting a hand backward in the same motion, then reaching for the cabinet with his other hand. “Keep silence inside, lest I need open you to find the noise.”

“Hmm. Open—” pulling one of the doors open, nudging objects around inside, going from door to door. “Open . . . open . . . open . . .”

Joseph watched Timothy, brow furrowing in puzzlement as the vampire—or whatever he was—rifled through the cabinet.

“Hssss . . .” the creature’s indrawn breath between clenched teeth was predatory. Long fingers stroked and petted a stuffed owl on a perch, talon-like nails giving shaky caresses, before snatching up the object.

Mine!”

Joseph very slowly began to sit up as Timothy tucked the owl under an arm possessively, and continued examining the cabinet’s contents. “Well-prepared. You’ll need these, oh yesss, good boy that you are.” Timothy grasped at an urn, shook it gently, a powdery sound coming from within. “Not the remnants of ages and flames. But close enough. Good enough to remind the others where they came from. One-two-three-four-five! Yes?”

Timothy turned, holding one of the canopic jars, teeth parted in a grin, eyes wide, then pausing and giving Joseph a dismayed look.

“Ohhh, not such a good boy after all, tsk tsk tsk, no, nooo. Can’t have that.” He heaved the jar underhand at Joseph, who scrabbled to catch it, keeping it from spilling its ashes.

“Good catch!” Timothy darted forward, pinning Joseph to the bed once more with one hand, fingers spread wide, dagger-points of his fingernails digging into shirt and skin. “But bad boy. Ssstay, I said. Stay!” His head moved closer as he craned his neck, bright yellow eyes glaring into Joseph’s, somehow luminous in the daylight filtered through curtains.

“I can’t smell them here,” Timothy told him, eyes unblinking. “They keep . . . ssscattering. Like the little bugs that run when you turn on the kitchen light.”

His fingers scrabbled across Joseph’s chest in a parody of insectdom. Joe startled at the crawling sensation, almost threw him off, but was pinned down again with unholy strength. Timothy’s eyes bulged, bright yellow flashing, face contorting in horrific ways for a moment.

“Disobedient!”

An almost pained, rasping hiss from his opened mouth, before his jaws clamped shut again. This time a tiny sliver of flesh was clipped from the tip of his tongue, landing on Joseph’s chest like a tiny blood colored slug.

Joseph struggled against the hand pinning him, clutching at the canopic jar. “What are you doing here?” he finally managed to ask, breathless.

Timothy grinned again, teeth streaked with a little smear of blood. Even in the breeze coming through the windows, Joseph could almost taste it, smell it. The miniscule trickle of garnet against ivory fairly glowed in his sight.

“Paying a visit. One visit. Saw you napping. Tell you a little bedtime story. And you do know . . . aaallllll good stories begin with a creation myth, don’t they. Mmm?”

Timothy sat down on the edge of the bed, shifted closer. Joseph winced, tried to move away, was pinned down harder, breath squeezing out of his compressed lungs. His heart thumped faster as he tried to draw a breath.

“In the beginning.” Timothy said, seemingly unconcerned with Joseph’s lack of oxygen. “God was without form, and Void. And the Darkness moved within the face of the Deep. And said, let there be Night. And there was Night. And it was so. Very. Good.”

“And then God said, ‘Let there be Light,’ and divided the Light from the Darkness.”

Timothy gave a sudden bone-cracking head turn, yellow lantern eyes glaring out at the sunlight.

“But your mummy—and her friends,” Timothy’s head whipped upward, gazed out the open bedroom door. “All fast asleep, now. But they gave me a place to stay. I won’t be staying much longer, though. I’ll be moving on up.”

His hand suddenly took flight from Joseph’s chest, gesturing like a flapping wing. Joseph whooped in a breath, and tried to sit up, but Timothy’s head snapped around to gaze at him again. The owl tucked under his arm dropped to thump softly to the mattress as his hands lashed out, clamping tight around Joseph’s head instead. Bones creaked dully and and an instant headache began to pound into his skull.

“My little siblings.” Timothy leaned closer, tilted his head in a quizzical, predatory motion. “My kith and kin, we came here to play. But they broke the rules. Mmm. Don’t blame them. No, no, no, no, no. But now it’s time to put them in a time-out.”

He drew Joseph closer, his face filling Joseph’s vision. His breath smelled of stale blood, dust, dead things, a weird dry sweetness like a snake’s terrarium or a shelf of old lumber.

“Sssh, sssh, little boy,” he whispered. “Go back to sleep. It’s all just a bad little dream. A secret. Just between you, me, your little family. They can see the writing on the wall. And you can too, can’t you now?” Joseph’s head pounded, tilted back, gazing upward as Timothy stood, hands still wrapped tight around his head, fingernails pressing into skin. “Tell them. You tell them to find them for me, little boy. Find the five for me . . . maybe I’ll . . . let you be when all is said and done.”

His lips parted to flash another broad grin. His eye shone bright yellow, but infinite darkness lurked inside the pupils, and Joseph’s vision drifted into that darkness as it obscured everything else.

“Tell mummy I said ‘hello’!” Timothy’s voice hissed.

Joseph sat up, clutching his own pounding head. A slowly-building migraine was threatening to split his skull.

So much for a nap—

But in the midday light, the windows and drawers were all open. The cabinet’s contents were shuffled around, the owl missing, the canopic jars full of ashes arrayed on the foot of the bed.

And as Joseph tilted his head, looking down, he could see a few tiny streaks of blood on his t-shirt, on the sheets . . . and a withered shred of flesh among the folds of cloth.

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Mila's Masquerade
Soundtrack for a Requiem for a Dream

1. Joy Division: Shadowplay

2. Shriekback: Nemesis

3. Bauhaus: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes

4: The Sisters of Mercy: When You Don’t See Me

5. The Dwarves: Speed Demon Girl

6. The Jesus & Mary Chain: Just Like Honey

7. Nine Inch Nails: Meet Your Master

8. Garbage: #1 Crush

9. VNV Nation: Beloved

10. The Gun Club: Walking with the Beast

11. The Damned: Life Goes On

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Seven in One Room
Bad Juju @ Timmy's Pad

Jan peered over Violet’s shoulder as she freed her key from the lock and opened the door. Even in the unlit gloom, he could easily see the windows, each sealed over with foil and blinds . . . but each one fully opened, cold night air streaming into the apartment.

No heartbeats but for Joseph’s behind him. No feel of the predator, the Beast, but that shared between himself, Violet, and Mila. No movement, no inhabitants. The walls were darker than before, the open front closet and living room empty, doors open . . . and a faint, but unmistakeable smell still hung in the air. Dried blood.

As the four filed into Timothy’s apartment, flicking on flashlights or peering about with their heightened senses alert, they could see why: Every wall, door, and ceiling was painted over in hand-high letters, the finger-thick daubs spelling out what looked like writing, crisp and clear despite the pigment. And yet so much writing was painted on that every sentence was tangled with its neighbors in varying shades of blood—each layer gleaming a different scarlet, crimson, carmine, or rust by age—that Jan could barely pick out a single letter, in English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Greek, Korean, Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, Latin, Tagalog . . .

“Holy—“ Jan let it hang in the air as his voice faltered. Even the Beast was quiescent.

“—Shit.” Everyone hissed the word to him or herself softly, in near-unison.

“Little Timmy’s been busy,” Violet sneered, features coldly sarcastic.

“Golly. Look at this . . .” Mila strode softly across the room, sweeping her iPhone’s light around the area. Violet followed her into the next main room—the kitchen. Behind them, Jan and Joseph quietly looked over the interwoven writing.

Jan raised his phone overhead, carefully examining the writing by camera light. “Okay . . . that looks like an H, maybe an E . . .”

“No, look closer, the E’s after that, “ Joseph countered, sweeping one big hand upward. He paused, took a picture with a flash and a beep. “See the way the . . . the blood spill changes?” The brief flicker at the edge of ultraviolet added an unearthly gleam for a moment.

Jan gave him a narrow-eyed look. “How the hell can you—“

“Her,” Joseph jerked his head after Mila. “It’s . . . a little part of what she gave me.”

In the neighboring room, Mila and Violet continued their sweep. The windows here were all open, the room stripped bare as the previous ones, but for the writing, layers of blood and filth smeared into the dingy white paint. Moreover, every other door was opened: The swinging door into the kitchen, the doors into the neighboring rooms, the water-heater closet door, the counter drawers and cabinet doors all opened, the doors to the refridgerator and all its racks and drawers opened

Mila tilted her head, following the trail the Beast was following, its urges tugging soundlessly over here, that there was more, down into the open bathroom door to find.

Violet followed her, branched off to one side, peering into the bedroom. No furniture, writing everywhere, window opened, closet door opened, sliding closet doors opened . . .

What in the world . . .

From behind her, Violet heard Mila’s footsteps halt at the bathroom door.

“Ohhh, fuck.” Mila’s voice was soft, but that particular groan of dismay was unmistakeable.

“What is it?” Violet turned around, following her into the bathroom as Joseph and Jan came bringing up the rear. The bathroom door was the only one that had closed—partly—and Mila pushed it back open as they approached, holding it open this time.

The bathroom was surprisingly spacious . . . and filled with bodies. Several corpses lay stacked like cordwood, each in a slightly more advanced state of decay than the others, every single one lain out stiffly atop or next to its neighbor. Each body was neatly slashed open at the wrists, the throat, the insides of the thighs, flesh pallid or chalky. Every single one of the bodies was withered, decay somewhat slowed by the cold, dry atmosphere—the skylight was open to let in frigid late-winter air, as were the sink’s drawers and medicine cabinet—and apparently completely drained of blood and other fluids. The clawfoot bathtub across the room was a gore-choked horror; though empty, the elegant porcelain was caked in layers of maroon and blackish brown, the white shower curtain drawn back but likewise spattered. Its drain plug was open like every other portal in the apartment, the chain and rubber stopper coated with dried blood and other more noisome substances.

Joseph took a faint breath, made a brief grimace, and backed up. Despite the slowed decay of the bodies, the stench was nauseating to anyone still living, and the three Kindred likewise shared expressions of distaste. Jan edged closer, forcing himself to look carefully at the bodies, even as the Beast tensed in the face of this enormity.

“They’ve all been . . .” Jan began, shook his head, started anew. “They’ve all been opened.”

“Just like everything else in here,” Violet finished for him.

“There’s almost no, uh, mess,” Joseph added. “It’s like this guy just . . . hoisted ’em up, and used the tub like a, like an inkwell.”

Mila took a few steps closer to look into the bathtub. “And it’s like . . . he didn’t even drink from them at all. Just . . . used them for all the writing.”

“Shit. Guess that explains why the building’s so quiet.” Everyone looked at Jan, and he shrugged. “I haven’t heard hardly a living person in the place. Definitely not on this floor.”

Yet, as all of them stretched out with their senses, they could feel something else . . . approaching. Under the dead quiet of the apartment, the sound of the elevator hummed and creaked, with a sudden clunk as the cab reached the top floor in the hallway outside.

“Shit, shit, shit, go, go, go—” Jan hissed as he backed out of the bathroom and into the apartment’s main rooms. With his senses so attuned to the area, he could sense multiple persons approaching—none of them alive, and every single one carrying the same predatory taint as Mila, Violet, and himself. Other Kindred.

Violet quickly moved to the front room, and turned the locks on the apartment’s door, dashing back into the kitchen where the rest gathered. Mila pointed to one window. “Here, the fire escape—” but as she put her head and shoulders out, looking over the rickety galvanized metal steps and landings, she could see another figure making its way up from where the escape terminated above the ground floor. “—shit, there’s another one of them.”

Penned in by the approaching Kindred in the hall and on the fire escape, the three neonates and one ghoul ducked into the front room. Violet backed around a corner, knives in her hands; Jan slipped behind a door and pulled out the heavy revolver under his jacket; Joseph unslung the AR from the duffel bag over his shoulder as he took up a spot near the fire escape window, and tossed Mila a prybar from the same bag.

Long, cold seconds ticked by as they waited, and they could feel the others drawing nearer. The faint ribbon of light under the front door was partly occluded by a pair of feet as they halted at the door . . . then another . . . then a third . . . and the third was accompanied by another: smaller feet, a low, rapid heartbeat and the sound of hoarse panting.

The four exchanged nervous glances in the dim room, and raised each of their weapons. Outside, the fire escape gave an occasional clank or shudder as whoever was out there continued their casual climb upward.

The knob rattled back and forth as whoever was outside tried the locked door. Then the whole door shuddered in its frame as they pounded against it. Then the wood gave a splintering crack as it was kicked in. Framed in the light of the hallway outside, three figures stood watching, all bearing the same blank, focused expressions. One of them, a stocky black-skinned man in street clothes, held the end of a chain leash leading to the collar of a mastiff.

Without a word, he released his hold on the leash and his pet bounded forward, seizing onto Mila’s ankle as she tried to backpedal across the room. The man followed his pet in, shrugging a length of steel pipe from the sleeve of his jacket and raising it high.

“Hey!”

Violet darted out of the corner where she’d concealed herself, drawing back both her knives and raking them down the man’s back, leaving jagged rents in clothing and flesh, but hardly slowing him as his makeshift club crashed into Mila’s arm. Even as Mila swung her prybar furiously at the ghoul hound, yelping in pain and surprise at the assault, the man made no sound at all.

The second figure followed the first in, a fit-looking blonde in jogging attire who raised a worn Louisville Slugger and prepared to bracket in Mila, as a third—painfully thin with bulging eyes and a tattered three-piece suit—slipped in behind him to drag Violet away from their compatriot.

Jan slammed into tall-and-skinny as he grabbed hold of Violet, ramming the barrel of his gun into the man’s torso. “Mother fucker!” he shouted as he pulled the trigger. There was a muffled pow and the scent of scorched cloth, but only a tiny exit wound and a brief dribble of blood marked the injury. Most times guns won’t do shit on Kindred, he briefly remembered Rickard telling him, ‘specially if they’re tougher like Nomads like you an’ me, or Lords. He snarled, teeth beginning to lengthen as he threw the gun aside and grappled with the assailant.

Mingled anger and pain drove Mila on as she forced Vitae through her body, her heart thudding unsteadily while she raised the crowbar and swung it down hard onto the ghouled dog. Bone cracked and the animal yelped, then bared teeth, muzzle almost foaming as it seized on her again, head jerking back and forth as it nearly yanked her off her feet. The dog’s keeper swung his pipe into Violet’s shoulder with a soft crunch of metal on bone, prompting an angry “Owww!” from her before she stabbed one of her knives into his abdomen.

As the man wielding the baseball bat closed in, Joseph raised the AR and snapped off a shot that grazed the man’s skull, leaving a little furrow in his blonde hair. At the burst of light and sound, his gaze fixed on Joseph, and he moved in a sudden blur across the room, barreling into the larger man. With no sound other than a brief low hiss, he bared his fangs and sank them into Joseph’s shoulder.

“Joe!” Mila screamed in fury and dismay, and took another hard swing at the hound, cutting its snarls short with a yelp of pain and the sound of cracking bone.

The tall, skinny suited man’s attention turned to Jan, and with an almost casual swing of his fist, slammed him back against the wall. As Jan snarled, eyes filling with a blank, murderous fury, the black man wielding the pipe also turned in his direction, recognizing the threat, and moved to assist his companion.

At the sudden shift in attention, Jan’s eyes locked on the pipe-wielding man, and he hurled himself at him, claws and teeth elongated, the only thought the Beast allowing kill. Kill. KILL. The two collided, and just before the Beast eclipsed all coherent thought, Jan spun and kicked the man’s legs out from under him, then leapt atop his body, swinging, clawing, biting, howling.

Tall-and-skinny moved to pull Jan off of his ally, but stopped short as Violet grabbed him from behind in turn, and his attention fixed on her once more. The two locked eyes, and Violet’s widened, the darkness behind them billowing out, a cold feeling of dread and unease emanating from her as she glared unblinking, then swung hard, the fist clenched tight around the pommel of her knife colliding with his face in a hard Vigor-powered blow that dislocated the man’s jaw with a wet pop.

Across the room, the jogging-attired Kindred continued to chew into Joseph’s shoulder, and the ghoul gave a pained groan, then a louder roar. He grabbed hold of the man’s hair, yanking back hard to pull his fangs out of his shoulder, and let out another furious roar as he turned, battered the smaller vampire’s head against the wall, again, and again, then picked him up bodily and hurled him through the window nearby. The muffled crump of the body landing far below went unnoticed by the rest of the combatants.

The sounds of the other figure ascending the fire escape—just a story or two away now—paused as the climber made a puzzled, surprised sound, then the stairs rattled and clanked anew as they began moving again.

Still fending off the ghoul hound, Mila raised the crowbar high and swung hard as she could, putting all her strength into the attempt. This time, her blow shattered its spine and its back legs collapsed, the animal’s snarls turning to pained whines, then silence as she brought down the bar again, and again.

Violet and her opponent slammed into each other, grappling for dominance, each one much stronger than they appeared, wrestling, shoving, punching, kicking. Finally, Violet broke free, baring her teeth in a snarl as the nameless Kindred flexed his hands, ragged nails bent into claws. He raised his hands, looking back and forth between the two women—before another loud bang sounded and the back of his head exploded. The vampire collapsed, a small neat smoking hole near the middle of his forehead, and Mila and Violet turned back to look at Joseph, still bleeding freely from the gash in his neck, holding up the rifle, a faint trail of smoke still rising from the barrel.

There was a soft, wet sound in the corner as Jan’s teeth sank into the last Kindred’s throat and tore into it, ripping down to the bone. His opponent gave one brief bubbling wheeze, then went still, body slowly beginning to curl in on itself. The neonate atop him sat up, looking around as reason slowly returned to his eyes. His jacket was a torn ruin, the shirt underneath spattered in blood, his face and arms and chest battered from the fight, still slowly mending.

The three kindred and one ghoul looked warily at each other, watching injuries heal, looking at the two bodies—one obviously very dead and by now looking weeks-decayed, the other shriveling in on itself, limbs curling toward the torso—then to the window . . .

“Oh shit!” Violet darted to the window. The sounds of the climber on the fire escape had stopped some time ago, but no one was yet to be seen.

“Guys, uh . . .” the rest of the group joined her, looking out the windows and down the back of the building. The body of the third assailant lay sprawled atop a neighboring one-story structure—and someone else was crouched over it, pinning the body in place, head bowed over the throat in a familiar pose.

“What the hell—” Mila said, as the unknown figure rose from the body, which was rapidly turning into a human-like outline of clothing filled with greasy ash. As the figure stood, he turned, a wide grin on his face, and a flash of yellow in his eyes.

He gave the assembled watchers a tiny, almost friendly wave, as if to say “Thanks!”, then turned and leapt, springing feather-light across the rooftop, bounding away on tiptoes, lightly touching on the edge of a roof, the top of a flimsy HVAC duct, a spinning vent, each stride almost weightless.

Hurriedly, Mila dug out her phone again and snapped a few pictures. The images came out slightly blurry, but silhouetted against the orange-lit cloudy night skyline, the frames captured the figure bounding in mid-air.

“What the fuck just happened?” Jan asked, looking out at the heap of ash far below, then back at the two Kindred bodies—one definitely dead, the other perhaps the same, if not beaten into torpor.

“I dunno, man . . . ah, fuck,” Joseph winced, put a hand to the injury on his neck. The bleeding was beginning to slow and scab over rapidly, but he looked just a touch shaken nonetheless. “Who was that?”

“I could be wrong, but I’d say that was Timmy North,” Mila said, looking her ghouled husband over. Even over the reek of gunpowder from Jan and Joseph’s weapons, the smell of spilled blood hung heavy in the air, and the sight and scent of the wound on his exposed skin plucked at her senses. No, not now . . . she told herself.

“We should . . . get these wrapped up . . . take them back to Master Kaintz . . .” Jan said.

Violet nodded in agreement, reaching out and taking his hand. “I’ll, give him a call . . . let him know we need some help here.”

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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?_

View
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.

View
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

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