Owls & Ashes

Behind Yellow Eyes
No one knows what it's like . . .

This one’s temple throbs and aches, and nostrils pick up the smell of spilled blood. The body winces involuntarily as I stand it up and reach a hand to the temple. Nasty cut, that, on top of a bruise, a hairline crack in the bone beneath. I press fingertips to the spot and the pain swells. Exquisite. We’d stagger at the agony if I weren’t pushing this body about.

Blood-caked fingertips. A warm metallic taste. This body doesn’t run on it, though it’s nice to have sip of your own brand, yes? But the flesh hungers for something else. Soon, soon . . .

A ride up the elevator, steel cables humming and singing as the cab cranks upward to the top. The apartment is empty; a tangle of ropes and duct tape on the floor roughly outlining where a body would have been held. My brother has already fled, poor broken thing. But I can’t take after him in this, no no no. Need to find the little darlings and bring them along.

Booted feet thump with purpose up the stairwell. Company comes, but not my young friends, no.

I slip into the shadows at the end of the hall—hello, darkness, my oldest friend—as the steel fire door opens, and the big red-bearded one they call Rickard emerges from the stairwell, head swiveling purposefully back and forth to clear the area. A clever beast, yes, but not that clever. A pair of ghouls accompany him, entering and sweeping the apartment. Minutes later, they leave.

“Nothing here,” Rickard is saying into a phone. “Already called Violet, let the little haunt know. One’a your boys thinks he can sense something else trailing out toward—”

The fire door slams shut behind the trio as they depart.

I wait. This one’s stomach rumbles and gurgles. They claim self-determination, but these creatures are at the mercy of a sack of fluids.

Eventually, the elevator hums to life again, descending, bringing up its cargo. Ahh, there you are! Violet, Sascha, Mila, and her pet arrive, entering the apartment.

Give them just enough time to settle in. Knock, knock, knock! Open, open, open!

Voices fall silent inside the penthouse. The door slowly unlocks and opens. The porcelain-skinned scary little doll peers out, those big baby blues widening.

“Remy?!”

I give her my best winning smile with his mouth and twinkle with his eyes, and she recognizes me.

• • • • • •

This one’s belly has ceased its noises, stuffed full to near bursting. Silence at last, at least from one of its demanding glands and sacs. The little ones know what they have to do for me. “Help me help you help me help you!” And I’m very sure they’ll do their part in this dance, yes, if they want their lost little beast back, especially the scary little doll.

I finish washing up in the bathroom sink, tuck Remy’s cap over his head rakishly to cover up where Violet clouted him. A little fist, beringed in brass, propelled in terror. This one’s lucky not to have died; a lucky glancing blow still left such a nasty mark.

Beyond the diner’s windows and neon lighting, the sky is velvet dark grey, and my little friends have left to hide and sleep. The waitress is finishing up her shift, counting up all of Remy’s money (generosity always makes an impression), and she looks up at me, giving a careful smile. I give her a shy grin in return, and she stands up, heads over to where I wait in the vestibule by the restrooms and payphones. Give us a kiss, dear . . .

The sweet reek of hydrocarbons belches out of a MUNI bus tailpipe as it rumbles by. The air is warming up as the sky lightens. I flex this body’s sore swollen toes in her sensible work shoes, and glance down. From these eyes, I can see the nametag on her apron: ɐssᴉɹɐƆ.

I pluck it free and turn it so I can read it properly, repin it in place. The needle point gouges skin, pricking and scratching, a tiny steel talon. I turn to head down the sidewalk, and as I emerge from the shadow of the building, the first rays of light from that brilliant ball of fire warm her skin. Oh, so very warm indeed. I can’t help but turn fully into it and stand, raising the head, tilting it back and letting that light and heat wash over her flesh. And inside, in the dark behind her eyes, I am safe.

• • • • • •

Seated on a ledge above Redwood Park, the long shadow of this pyramid building behind me is a welcome retreat after such a long, sunny day. Below, the little ones have already gathered. So punctual! Their desperation is almost palpable. I’ve kept them a little overlong, perhaps, but I just couldn’t help it.

I step off the edge of the building, and something in their senses draws their attention to me. Their eyes all widen as I drift (light as a feather!) to the ground, sketch them a little curtsy. They notice the nametag, recognize the body, then recognize me. Every single time, they’re so confused. Poor little dears. But they’ll have to do.

The little doll lunges toward me, shouting in an old familiar tongue while the rest turn their confusion to her. Oh! There you are! An old friend glares at me out of Violet’s eyes.

Nemesis! Foulness! Corrupter! You seek to ruin us all again!” she spits in the tongue of old Rome.

I can’t help but smile at this chance meeting. She’s fled each time she’s gotten wind of us, and it’s such fun to see her each time, especially with this new trick.

Domina Tiberia Cassia Alba! Lovely to see you again. Oh, yes, you’re now . . . Miss Antonia Collins these days?

Violet’s mouth turns down in a cold scowl. “Not any more.

Oh, yes, that was decades ago. My, my, the time do fly . . .

My honest mistake,” I reassure her sweetly. She doesn’t believe me, the sad old thing. But business remains to be done. “I’ll be going soon enough, yes. Must keep up with the times, just like you, hmm?”

You won’t find me, monster. Not this time.

I wave ɐssᴉɹɐƆ’s hand dismissively. “I don’t want you, withered one. So old, so boring, so set in your ways, and we’ve done this over and over. These new ones are much more fun to see dance about. Besides . . . I’m late for an important date!

To Dis and hell and the abyss and perdition with you!” she croaks as her voice grows distant once more. Violet reasserts herself with an effort of will, and the Domina’s gaze begins to fade from her eyes.

I wriggle fingers in a farewell, smile broadly. Perhaps someday I’ll tire of watching her squirm, but then again, some things never get old.

• • • • • •

Delight fills me. A surprise! A genuine surprise after so many years.

“You truly mean it!?” I ask Sascha. Were it not for my plans this evening, I’d have a lovely new toy all my own, but I can only borrow it. Still, it’s almost tempting . . .

He nods, casting a glance over his shoulder down the street to the building where the worshipers of their ‘dark centurion’ await. “Yeah . . . let’s make it quick.”

I give him a broad, happy grin, and slam lips against his. His mouth opens involuntarily in the kiss as I slide arms around his broad torso, and she sags against us. The blood-tainted darkness behind his eyelids is almost too comfortable. He’s learned so much in such a short time, and perhaps he’d appreciate a few more close and personal lessons but, well, promises to keep and miles to go . . .

I hoist up the semi-conscious woman and Mila’s pet, Joseph, slips an arm over his shoulders.

“C’mon, now,” he tells her, helping her stumble down the street and sit at the bus stop bench. He gives me a wary glance as I smile back once more. I guess this means he does remember my visit, my bedtime story!

Within Sascha’s oh-so-welcoming form, I go to church for the first time in years, flanked by Violet and Mila. Downstairs, the locks twist off like thick clay and the door swings back on heavy spring hinges. Oh, this one’s so strong too! But I can’t get through that door just yet. They learned a lesson so long ago, from when a certain Angel of Death passed over Egypt. . .

“Hmm . . .” I peer down at the writing edged around the floor, posts, and lintel. In Sascha’s sight, all the dried blood gleams a dull ruby, carmine, and garnet. “That one. And that one. Aaand that one.”

Mila looks up at me, the weird little shadow hesitant.

“Oh! Yes. And . . . that one there,” I add.

She gives a frown, but wets her fingertips with bloody saliva and smudges the writing. The air grows heavy for just a moment, then the ward snaps. I tip her a wink, and stride into the meat locker as the way opens, opens, opens.

Such a treasure trove! So many asleep here. I could be like the child in the sweet shop, but I’ve got a score to settle. Yes, I do indeed. Where are you, where are you, where—ah hah!

I lean over the body of Livia DeWitt, refined features marred by such harsh mistreatment, and give the sleeping beauty a kiss. Sascha jerks and staggers, falling bonelessly to the floor below the cold steel gurney as I sit her up. Muscles tug raggedly and fragments of her spine and ribs grate and grind at each other when I stand her up. Oh, this won’t do at all; I’ve got to be presentable for this evening’s appointment. Still, I can reach through her slumbering mind, that tangle of sad angry little ape bound up in the lessons we tried to teach them so long ago, and everything she knows about the old ways flows into everything I know too, tributaries merging into a great torrent. Exactly what I need!

I step out of the cold room as Sascha gets to his feet and follows me, dazed. Mila gives him a worried look, but keeps watch on me as we make our way upstairs.

On the ground floor, our little party comes to a halt. Violet has risen from where she sat on the pews, and another has joined our evening’s fun—one of the children of Seth, so very debased from what they could have been. But even as he glares at me with eyes gone black-on-black-on-black and he sees who’s really moving this body about, I can already see something in there we can work with, and I give him a slow smile. As they say, the enemy of my enemy . . .

• • • • • •

As the last sounds of my call, my taunt, my summons to my brother fades into the night sky, I turn and smile back at the little ones, waggling eyebrows upward at them.

“He’ll be here soon!”

Slow, cold minutes pass by. The stars wheel slowly overhead and the cheery red lights of Sutro Tower blink . . . on, off . . . on, off . . . on, off . . .

I can feel him, close, closer, closer still. That’s it, come to me, time to finish up our game and we’re playing for all the marbles.

He lunges out of the dark, a guttural howl from Jan’s throat as his body blurs by, long ragged black claws set to tear the head from Violet’s shoulders. She throws herself aside, turning the killing blow into a row of nasty deep slashes across her face from the corner of her mouth to her ear. He’s so fast!

He lands Jan’s body in a rough crouch, and from the darkness downslope.

“Kill that bitch of yours!” he snarls to Mila’s pet, and stabs a fingertip at me, and the little puppet turns to dance on his strings, hefting that sledge. Tsk. They always bend so easily.

Then my brother beckons to a pack of his little pets as they scramble into view and they charge to me. Such a let down, and such a mistake. This flesh isn’t so frail this time, dear sib. Still, I am beset on all sides by his raving minions, and I have to take the time to fend them off.

They’re fun in their own way, but too simple. Too limited. Too boring.

He gathers himself to leap at me, and Sascha, that brave, brash deviant, charges at him. What a good boy! The two collide like stormfronts, snarling, clawing, kicking, punching, biting, ripping, tearing.

Violet seizes onto one of the mindless pets, hurling it aside bodily, and batters at another with bare fists. Bone crunches with each blow.

Red scorching light blossoms, streaking by and burning into the flesh of another as Mila fires at it. A flare gun! Apparently didn’t learn her lesson before. But, so long as you don’t shoot-shoot-shoot that thing at me . . .

Mila’s little boy swings at her, and she dodges away in a blur. His toy slams into the ground and its head cracks off, leaving just a stick for him to play with. She shouts at him to stop, her voice full of cold, ringing command, and he staggers to a halt, his puppet strings cut for now. But she has other fish to fry, she does indeed, as the one she burned streaks at her, all fury and no subtlety.

At the corner of my eye, I see the little asp fumbling in his pockets for something as another of my brother’s minions bounds toward him. He’ll keep for now.

Pain lances up my arm as another of the stupid beasts bites down, shredding skin and muscle and cracking bone. No more playing with these ones. I raise my other hand and yank its mouth free, jawbone cracking, and throw it in the direction of the little boy playing priest. Time to tend to my kin!

He’s gotten the better of Sascha, hands locked around his throat as they tussle in the road, slamming his head against the pavement with bone-crunching force. You’ve left yourself wide open! Never were one to watch your back, were you?

As the two tear at each other, I stride closer, reaching out, calling on that old knowledge, that old time religion, that truth of what’s really out there past the light of campfires and streetlamps and cities aflame, and stroke my hand down Jan’s back, tearing away leather jacket and shirt and skin. Beneath, the poor young savage’s blood burns away, and I reach deeper, feeling for my brother’s presence. Elusive, but not that elusive.

Caught between Sascha and myself, he can only struggle, pinned as I tear away what protects him, shred by shred, in talons-full and beak-fulls. Poor, stupid sibling, you should have just let them take you all at once. It would have meant so much more fun, and now you’re just so weak you can scarcely resist!

And then, you finally burst free of the little beastie’s body, and as he throws his head back and vomits you free into the night, I shed the priestess’ skin to follow. She collapses like the sack of blood and bones that she is, the true part of her still asleep deep within. Into the night sky I follow you, and at long last, we dance.

You claw and bite and beat against me, but you’re too weak—you gave up just enough to make it convincing, but just enough was too much. From below, the crack of something whiplike, but red and black and almost fluid, as the little centurion-lover has finished his prayers, and tries to strike at one of us, either of us, and reaches you out of pure luck! Oh, I shall remember you when this is all over, yes, I will. Time is on my side, yes it is . . .

He drags you closer, tangled in his little toy of blood and shadow, and takes a flailing talon for his trouble. Your strike tears away at his being, and flesh blackens and withers to match. But you’ve let down your guard, so very single-minded in your hatred.

I stoop, and dive, and enfold you in my wings and drive in beak and talons.

And now, brother dearest, you’re mine, in every way.

I can taste your fury, your wildness, but you haven’t been very clever or cunning enough in so long. And now all that fury and wildness and strength is mine, as we flow into one another, as I bind you to me, as I take all that you are, all that remains of you, to make me more of what I am, more of who we always are . . .

Below, Sascha, that nasty, tricky boy, has dug into his pocket, and hurls something into the gusting night winds. The fistful of ashes is borne aloft, shredding apart into a swirling cloud, and as my brother’s essence fades into me and I swell to bursting with this last supper, I am surrounded. Trapped! Consumed! Hoist by my own petard!

. . . But for that sudden break in the currents, right there.

And at last, I am so gloriously ready. The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them. I am large and contain multitudes. Our name is legion, for we are so very many . . .

I pour through the wind currents as the cold remnants of old fires and funerals courses around me, and I can contain us no longer. Some few are caught, consumed, a smattering shatters and scatters . . . but what matters is the latter . . .

• • • • • •

Later . . .

We perch on a telephone pole, watching the shadow, so self-assured in her new hiding place as she makes all her little plans, and, drawn by the dark within, she peers out to meet our gaze.

We roost atop the iron railing of a fire escape, and the cat hisses and leaps away from us into the apartment’s window, where the surprising deviant who showed so much promise looks first at the animal, then at us.

We alight on the sill of the apartment window, after ensuring each and every one is first open, open, open . . . and at last, the battered savage and the haunting little doll enter, then come to a dead (hah!) stop, seeing us darkly, face to face.

You’ve all been so very much fun—and ohhh, so helpful. We couldn’t have done it without you. Parting is such sweet sorrow. It’s a shame to leave you.

That’s why we’ll be coming back some day.

We take wing, swirling into the dark sky all together, and as we have always done, as we have always been, we are one with the night.

View
Boarding in a Winter Weird(er)-Land
A Parody . . . ?

Heavy snowfall, swirling in bitter-cold winter winds, blankets the landscape, coming down so thickly that it mounds and drifts in waist-deep powder. A few snowcats and tractors make their way up and down groomed slopes, their lights barely piercing through gloom and near-whiteout conditions. Well after sunset, the mountain is closed, and the day’s riders and skiers have all retired to the restaurants, bars, and hotels at the base.

But one figure still lopes across the powdery landscape, walking here and there on broad feet, mostly dropping to all fours and bounding across the snow. With eyes and ears attuned to the wintery night, darkness is no obstacle. With the battery-warmed suit (and an insulated oversize CamelBak full of warmed blood), the cold is certainly no issue. And with his form adapted to the conditions, the deep snowdrifts and punishing winds and white-covered steep slopes are no impediment at all.

A furry pelt bristles out of cuffs, collar, and pantlegs; long-limbed forearms reach down to the knees; and broad, thick-fingered and long-toed hands and feet support him as he claws his way uphill, snowboard and boots strapped to his back. Even with the lift chairs shut down for the night, he is determined to make it to the top. This Yeti-like figure stops for a moment to turn his head, peering downslope at the rumbling snowcat on the groomed paths, laughs softly to himself, and resumes his course.

As he reaches the peak, he tips his head up, gazes at the last rocky promontory marking the mountain’s height, bares a snouted mouthful of fangs in a grin, and bounds to its top on all fours. At its height, where he can go no further, he tilts his head back and takes in a deep breath of the biting cold air, exhaling it just as coldly, then turns to sit down and unsling his board from his shoulders.

Stuffing his reshaped feet into the boots is a slight challenge, but a larger sized pair to accommodate their fit was a good forethought. He yanks the laces taut, tightening the boots firmly around his feet before stepping into the bindings and ratcheting them into place.

With a little fumbling of his broad, pelted-and-claw-tipped hands, he manages to unhook the CamelBak’s nozzle from over his shoulder and bite down (carefully!) onto the mouthpiece. The taste of blood, hot and metallic, spills into his mouth and down his throat; the richness of Vitae is somewhat faded for being away from its vessel for so long, but it will have to do for now.

Maybe I’ll look for an Apres-Ski, later.

He grins into the wind and licks his teeth clean, snickering at a memory of old Mountain Dew commercials full of extreme snowboarders powering down cans of soda before taking on a daylit groomed hill under clear skies.

He flops back into the heavy powder, briefly flailing arms up and down in a parody of snow-angel making, then props himself back up and adjusts his gear as he stands. Below him, the rocky outcrop meets the ridge, transforming into the long, wide, snow-covered slope. Across his shoulders, the ridgeline sweeps across the mountain to other, far-off runs. Below, the steep double-black diamond branches into the groomed slopes and attendant Snowcats at the right; moguls and a rocky throat in the middle; and to the left, a sudden steep dropoff into night and the snowy valley below.

Fuck the Ordo. This is his night; no research, no duties, no tasks, and besides which, his advancement is what has enabled him to be here.

Fuck the All Night Society and all the other Kindred. They’re back in the bay area, huddling in town, while he rode up here in a rented, insulated U-Haul van; Rickard would likely laugh his ass off, or at least give a grudging smirk and snort.

Fuck the Sixth, and One through Five, and Seven, and any others. Hell, they probably would applaud his choice to do his own thing anyway . . . or at least flap their smoky, shadowy wings.

He raises his head and draws in a lungful of icy air, throwing back his head and spreading his arms wide as he bellows out a rolling, wailing howl that is picked up and echoed by far-off wolves. In a Snowcat far downhill, the driver peers out into the dark, unsure if he really did hear something or if it was just his imagination.

And fuck all your overpriced ‘season pass’ bullshit, Vail!

Jan Farkas—Gangrel, Nomad, Savage, Yeti-looking vampire, rebel snowboarder—leaps forward off of the rocky height of Thimble Peak, aiming the tip of his snowboard into the blizzard night, and goes bombing down the hill, laughing all the way.

View
Tipping the Dragon's Scales
Ordo Dracul research taxes body, mind, spirit . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop it, fucker.

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

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

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

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

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

“Drink’s on me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he hisses softly.

“Just a little?” she pleads.

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

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

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

“Ow, fuck!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe we can compromise . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up, you fucking—“

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

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

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

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

Jan says nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s this gonna do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mila’s cool with this?”

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

“Alright, stay still . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I, uh . . .”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan shakes his head, chooses his words carefully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View
13 Hours of Night, Pt. III

YouTube Playlist

1. Filter – One
2. Kongos – Come With Me Now
3. Sisters of Mercy feat. Ofra Haza – Temple of Love
4. Remy Zero – Gramarye
5. Bjork – An Echo, A Stain
6. Interpol – Lights
7. Bush – Mouth (Stingray Mix)
8. Rob Zombie – Superbeast
9. Course of Empire – Infested
10. David Bowie – The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell
11. VNV Nation – Off Screen
12. Velvet Underground – Venus in Furs
13. A Perfect Circle – Passive

View
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.

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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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