December 16, 2010

The Nature of the Beast, Part I: The Nahualli

 ((Another Flashback! New story should be back again in the next week or two! Until then, more excerpts from Harper's unlife before Chicago. For reference, the post that comes before this one, chronologically, was  "An Unexpected Outcome" posted on 7/8/10))

I sat across from Giuseppe in a dark, quiet room. He was so still that it was easy to forget he was there at all. I was so engrossed in my meditation that when he spoke I nearly jumped out of my skin.

"What are you, Harper?"
I blinked against the darkness and shifted. I didn't really get sore muscles from sitting in one place too long anymore. Small favor.

I groped for an answer. I could see his silhouette, darker against the blackness of the room. He was watching me.

"A vampire..." I said lamely.
"Is that how you define yourself?"

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. I frowned and thought about the question. It wasn't something I'd ever really considered. These sorts of existential questions where becoming more and more common place. I found it frustrating as hell.

This instance was no different. "I'm a woman.. not human anymore. A monster.."

"You think you are a monster?"

"No.. I.." I made a frustrated noise. "I'm not alive anymore.. I have the Beast..I'm different."
"And the beast makes you a monster?" He asked. He kept his voice neutral, so it was impossible to judge what a right answer might be.
I sighed heavily.These questions never had right answers.. "I don't know. I'm scared that it does."
I hugged myself tightly. This had been a topic I'd been dwelling on a lot lately, the fear that this new 'beast' would turn me into some crazy murdering psycho eventually. "But I've seen humans become monsters too, without the beast along for the what does that mean for us, having the extra push in that direction?"

He regarded me, and I could feel the intensity of his gaze, even without being able to see his eyes. Finally, he stood. "What does it mean to be human?"

"I don't know." I said. I did my best to keep my voice from sounding like a scared child.

"Do not be so quick separate yourself from humanity. You are different, truly, but perhaps not in the manner you are thinking."

He got to his feet. "We leave first thing tomorrow night."

"Where are we going?"
"Mexico City." He opened the door, I blinked against the flood of dim light that spilled in from the hallway.
"Why Mexico?" I fought to keep my voice neutral. I didn't want to think about Mexico, and I really didn't want to go back.
"To find an answer to your question." He said, then disappeared down the hallway.


The next night, I shoved a few things into a small duffel bag. Mostly just a couple changes of clothes and a few weapons. Vampires tend to travel light.

I zipped the bag and opened my bedroom door to an empty apartment. I moved quickly towards the door. There wasn't any rush, but if I slowed down, I was afraid I'd start thinking too hard about where we were going. I'd start remembering the hot jungle, the sounds of the animals, the top of that impossibly tall temple.. the feeling of the knife as it..

I picked up the pace and jogged down the stairs, foregoing the elevator.

I met Giuseppe down at the car and said nothing. I just tossed my bag in the trunk and slide into the backseat. Mona dropped us off at the airport.

I got to fly on my first chartered jet. It made traveling much simpler. Commercial jets hold all sorts of dangers to someone who is highly allergic to sunlight. It's also not the best idea to put a wolf in a compact metal tube with a bunch of sheep, with no way out for either of them.

Safety precautions aside, flying in a private plane is just plain nice, vampire or not. It helped keep me distracted for awhile.

The trip was a good deal shorter than I was expecting. We stepped out into the cool night air, and I found I was significantly less terrified of being here than I thought I would be. That said, I still had no desire to revisit that fucking temple.

Thankfully, I didn't have too. We weren't headed to the temple. We were going to the University of Mexico.

 It was late, so the campus was sparsely populated. Both of us looked young enough to avoid suspicion, regardless. Giuseppe walked quickly towards one of the academic buildings, and despite the fact that I was several inches taller than him, I had to lengthen my stride to keep up.

Apparently we were on a timetable.

We stopped in front of the only building sporting a guard. He sat near the entrance, in a golf cart, pretending to doze, but he noticed us as soon as we stepped out of the shadows, even with the hat pulled down so far over his face. Giuseppe walked towards him, signaling me to wait.

They conversed briefly, in Spanish. I didn't catch a word of it, but after only a moment, the guard got out of his golf cart and unlocked the door, motioning us inside.

The interior was dark, the moon shining through the windows cast weird shadows on the floor and walls. Giuseppe led the way down a hallway, making a few turns here and there, until we were standing in front of a door that looked just like every other door in the building, with the exception of the man standing in front of it.

Where the hell was he taking me? The new guy opened the door for us, then followed us inside. What came next were a series of hidden doors, descending staircases, and finally an old elevator that opened up to a small cavern lit by torches.

The cavern looked like a small, round amphitheater. Benches were carved from the stone, 360 degrees around a flat lowered areas that held a stone table.

No, more like an altar. An altar large enough for a grown man to lay on. It was carved with symbols that I guessed were Aztec in origin. Torches adorned each corner.

And it was stained with blood.

What the fuck was going on?

Giuseppe and I sat about half way down the rocky benches. I tried not to look as uncomfortable as I felt. The torchlight danced across the room. There were several others present, about a dozen, already seated. At least three of them were vampires, the rest were either mortal, or something else entirely. There was a quiet tension in the air, but it seemed ritual, like the tension itself was part of whatever event we were about to witness.

We didn't have to wait long before the sound of drums filled the room, though I saw no drummers. The beat was slow at first, almost like a heartbeat. Then, it quickened, like startled bird...

No, I realized it felt more anticipatory than that. More like a wolf giving chase to a deer. It was excited and primal. My own beast started uncurling, and I could feel it in the pit of my stomach. I glanced at Giuseppe, surprised, but he was staring at the altar.

I followed his gaze and saw a man were no one had been standing a moment before. He was dressed in what I could guess was traditional Aztec ritual costume. He wore an ornate headdress of feathers and jewels. His shoulders and chest were bare, and he wore a loincloth that looked like it had been donated by a leopard. His forearms were covered in leather gauntlets studded with more stones and smaller feathers. His feet were bare.

And his face was painted like something from a horror flick. His eyes were circled in black. White and black paint made his lips look like a set of skeletal teeth, and red smears marred his high cheekbones and ran down his chin. Even from a distance, I knew it was blood, and I knew he was Kindred.

He held up his arms, and the drums ceased abruptly. He held out his hands and all eyes turned to watch a young vampire walk slowly down the isle, towards the priest. He was olive skinned and incredibly handsome. His hair was jet black, and oiled till it shone in the torch light. His lack of clothing, save a loincloth, showed his toned and sculpted body. As he passed me, I could tell his skin was soft and utterly flawless.

He stopped beside the priest, who raised his voice to address the crowd. He spoke in a rolling baritone, and completely in Spanish. Giuseppe began translating for me, and I had to lean closer to hear him over the echoing acoustics of the small cavern

"Today, we gather to partake in Tezcatlipoca's Gift! This man was granted the knowledge of the Smoking Mirror one year ago. Since that time, he has been treated to any luxury his heart desired, any comfort that pleased him. Any pleasure, save that of freedom!"

The tension returned. It was like the whole room was holding its breath. I found myself leaning forward in anticipation, despite the fact that I had no idea what was about to happen. A glance at Giuseppe told me he was doing the same.

"Tonight, we grant him that final comfort!"

The young vampire squared his shoulders and held his head high. I watched as his muscles tensed. He inhaled deeply, like he was preparing himself for a heavy physical blow.

Despite these warning signs, I was still caught completely by surprise when the priest laid on hand gently on the man's shoulder...

And slammed an obsidian knife deep into his sculpted chest.

I was too shocked to move. All I could do was watch in stupefied horror as he dragged the blade down, creating a huge gaping maw of a wound. I heard ribs snap, and the rational part of my brain wondered how he managed to break through bone with the famously brittle obsidian.

The young vampire did not flee. He did not cry out. His eyes went wide and his body rigid with pain. He arched his back and balled his fists, but nothing but a quiet, strangled gasp escaped him. The priest dropped the knife, and I prayed that it was over.

But deep down, I knew better.

The priest shoved his hand, none too gently, into the hideous wound, up to the wrist. With one quick jerk, the priest tore the vampires heart from his chest. He held it up for all of us too see. Vitae dripped from his fingers. There were cheers from several of those present. My body felt like ice. I was locked in place, unable to do more than watch in horrid fascination as the priest picked up the fallen man and laid him on the altar. He took that same obsidian knife and began to skin the vampire. We were close enough to hear the muffled cries of the victim.. he was being flayed alive.

I nearly vomited all over that stone floor when the priest finished (he skinned with the speed of someone well practiced) and took the flayed skin and draped it over his own shoulders. 

His booming voice rang out again as he took up one torch and turned the altar into a funeral pyre. It wasn't until the vampire went up like dry kindling that I was able to tear my eyes away. I flinched back from the fire and began shaking as the spell of the gruesome ritual fell away like broken glass.

The priest was speaking again, but if Giuseppe was translating, I didn't hear it. I looked up, panicked for a moment, my thinking brain still shocked into silence and my fear looking for the one familiar face it knew would be close.

Giuseppe met my searching eyes with a mirror of my own horror ridden expression. He was just as disgusted and disturbed by the ritual as I had been.

"Who..who are these people?" I managed to whisper.

"The Nahualli." He replied, his voice quiet and hoarse.

We turned together and watched the flames until there was nothing left but ash. We sat there until the cavern emptied, and we were alone. I felt like I was in shock. It took a good 20 minutes before my brain kicked back on, and I was filled with a tidal wave of conflicting emotions. Disgust, horror, rage, fear, excitement, joy, despair.. I hated myself for not trying to stop them, and while the thought of what they would have done to me had I tried was terrifying, more so was the fact that part of me reveled in the entire atrocity. That monstrous part of me screamed for joy when the hunter tore the heart from his prey.

Is that what I had to look forward too? Would that part of me overwhelm the rest, one day?

I closed my eyes against tears I hadn't even realized were falling and took several deep breaths to steady myself. When I finally managed to get it under control, I looked up to find Giuseppe watching me, his expression grim.

"Did you know?" I croaked. It came out more accusatory than I meant it too.
He shook his head, and I thought I caught a glimpse of a haunted expression behind his eyes.

The elevator opened behind us. A Hispanic man stepped out, dressed in gray slacks and a tweed jacket that almost hid the fact that he was in ridiculously good shape. His hair was black with streaks of silver, which made him look older than he was, at first glance. He couldn't have been more than 40. Or at least, that's how old he would have been when he died.

Giuseppe stood, and I followed suit. My legs hardly wobbled at all.

"Please, Come." The man said, in perfect English. It wasn't until he spoke that I realized this man was the priest I had just witnessed slaughter someone and wear his skin like a cape. Rage bubbled up inside me again. I must have done something to give it away, because Giuseppe caught my eye and gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head. I stared at him, fine tremors making my clenched fists shake. Giuseppe just looked at me, unflinching, until I finally dropped my eyes. I took a deep breath and tried to relax my hands, forcing as much anger down and away as I could manage.

Then we walked up the aisle and stepped into the elevator with a monster.


A few moments later we sat in two comfortable leather chairs in a well furnished office. The walls were lined with degrees and awards, and the bookcases were overflowing with books and manuscripts. Professor Ramirez, as the placard on the expensive desk labeled him, sat across from us, the picture of scholarly politeness.

The image was slightly marred by the bits of old blood I could see under his fingernails.

"Mr. Santore, it is a pleasure to see you again."
He looked to me. "Allow me to introduce myself. I am Reynaldo Ramirez. Professor of Ancient History. Can I get you anything at all?" He asked, his demenour surprisingly pleasant.

"What the fuck is going on?" I demanded, finally finding my voice.

He nodded to himself, unperturbed by my tone. "The Ritual of Tezcatlipoca's Gift. It certainly can be jarring for those who have never witnessed it before. It is for that reason, among others, that we tend not to allow outsiders, as a general rule."

"Why?" Was all I could muster.

"How familiar are you with the culture of the Aztecs?"

I said nothing. He continued, unfazed. "The primary god in the Aztec pantheon was Tezcatlipoca. He was an evil god, lord of famine, deceit, and disease. His name meant 'The Smoking Mirror' because he represented all that was veiled in the world." He went over to the book case and pulled down a large volume. He opened it to a picture of an etching. It depicted a ritual of human sacrifice. Bodies lay everywhere across the top of a temple. I couldn't help but shudder. It felt too familiar.

"However, Tezcatlipoca also had another side. Another identity, if you will. This other side, to the Aztecs, was another being entirely. Tezcatlipoca could also appear as Quetzalcoatl, god of light and knowledge." He replaced the book on the shelf and settled on the edge of his desk. "There is no evidence, in Aztec spirituality, that Tezcatlipoca ever tried to reconcile these two sides of himself. You see, Tezcatlipoca was the dark reflection of life, a smoking mirror of perception. But, like the Kindred, there remained aspects of good within his being. The Nahualli believe that this is reflected in us.We enact these rituals to honor our own Smoking Mirrors. Just as this," He gestured to his comfortable office. "Is one aspect of myself, so the darkness is one as well. I seek to subsume neither. It is balance that we seek, and such balance can only be achieved if we honor every aspect of our beings."

I gaped at him. "But you tore out his fucking heart!"

For the first time, Ramirez's expression darkened. "I am well aware of what occurred tonight."
"But how could you.."
He cut me off, his voice hard, eyes flashing. "Carlos was a willing participant in the Ritual. And more importantly, he was my friend. He knew what would happen to him, and he wanted it. I mourn for the loss.. but I take comfort in the fact that he spent the last year of his existence in luxury."

I tried to speak, but couldn't. I was at a complete loss. I looked to Giuseppe for help, but he sat silently, his expression unreadable.

The angry seemed to drain out of the professor and he gave me a smile that might have been apologetic. "It is a difficult thing to grasp, a foreign philosophy to one such as yourself. I understand that, from the outside, such a thing must seem..barbaric. But I assure you, these rituals serve an important purpose. While so many of our kind hide behind the guise of civility, pretending to be something they are not, we embrace both our humanity, and our monstrosity, in order to be a whole and unified being. " He stood and straighten his jacket. "Is there anything else I can do for you this evening?"

I just shook my head, dumbfounded.
Giuseppe stood and nodded to the professor. "Thank you for your time."

He gave us a gracious smile. "The pleasure was mine. Please, feel free to stop in whenever you like."

He held the door for us as we left the office.


I was quiet as we made our way back to the airport. Giuseppe let me stew for awhile.

I felt like I needed 50 boiling hot showers to scour away the memory of the night. I couldn't wrap my head around how anyone could possibly enact such brutal ceremonies. Balance? That hardly seemed balanced to me. How can polite words and a genteel manner balance out horrific murders? And he had said 'rituals' as we were leaving. Plural. I didn't even want to consider what other despicable acts the Nahualli used to give honor to their Beasts.

We were seated on the plane, awaiting takeoff before I finally spoke.

"I don't think I understand the lesson here." I said, somewhat bitterly. "From what I can tell, I should lock up the Beast and throw away the key."

Giuseppe looked at my over the top of his steepled fingers. "That is because the Nahualli are only one example.. the first half of the lesson. They represent one extreme." I made a disgusted noise in my throat, that he ignored. "They prove the things that the Beast is capable of, if left unchecked."

I sunk low in my seat, pressing the heels of my hands into my eyes, trying to block out the sight of the gaping wound, the smell of charred flesh....

"So what's the second half of the lesson?"

"You will see when we get there."

I sighed heavily and stared down at my hands. Not for the first time, I wondered when the day would come that my Beast would do something awful, and how much longer it would take before I was happy to let it..

December 3, 2010

Aftermath and Foreshadowing.

I pulled up a chair and settled across the small table from Giovanni. He looked at me over the top of his latest project, silent and waiting for me to speak.

"I got a hold of Giuseppe. He said that the beetles could be a Lancea Sanctum thing...but probably not Birch." I kept my voice low. No one was close enough to overhear us.

Gio looked back at his work and shrugged. "Much too subtle to be Birch. Any other suspects?"
"I"m not too familiar with all The Sanctified in town. The only other one that I know of is Sylvia Raines. I've heard she's Birch's rival... and though shes not too terribly old, has an impressive gift for Theban Sorcery. Doesn't mean its her, but that's my exhaustive list."
Gio frowned. "Name sounds familiar. Would I know her?"
I smiled bitterly. "She was with the Prince when he came to kill me."
"Ahh, yes. I remember."

"Why would she, if it is her, do it though?" I mused. It was mostly a rhetorical question. We didn't have enough information to do anything more than speculate.

Gio was silent for a moment. Then I saw that smug grin. "We should ask Frost when he's awake."

"Yeah we.. wait what?" I gaped at him, eyes wide, and glanced at the darkened doorway of the room the kid was in. "Frost? Are you serious?"

Giovanni nodded, and a surprised laugh escaped from me. "Well damn...I see now why you told Nobody to leave his knives."

Gio nodded. "So.. Mona is the Seneschal in New Orleans now? How'd that happen?"
I quickly sobered. I crossed my arms with a frown and looked at Gio a moment before answering. "That brings up another concern I have with this whole Lancea Sanctum thing. Mona isn't Seneschal, per se.. but Monica De La Croix, respected member of The Lance, is. She looks remarkably similar to one Ms. Mona Cross. Even vetted by the Lance.. extensively, I would imagine."

Giovanni gave a low, conspiratorial chuckle. "He's a clever son of a bitch, isn't he? I even know how they did it."
I looked at him expectantly.
"Yousef's desk in the secret room."
"The papers that you were going through?"
He nodded. "The same."
We shared a brief moment of amused silence.

I broke it. "Tommy called me earlier."
"To tell you about Giuseppe?"
"Yes and no." I rested my elbows on the table and leaned forward. "I think he was trying to get a read on me." Gio snorted. I continued. "He was voicing concerns about Giuseppe taking too much power, too quickly, and getting corrupted by it."
"And there would be little reason for Tommy to say things to the person who works the closest to Giuseppe unless he was trying to gauge your reaction."
I nodded."They could really fuck up his plans. But there's not too much that I can do about it. Guiseppe will have to take care of that. And it doesn't help that they hate him."
Gio gave me a sardonic smirk. "Who doesn't?"
I started to protest, then caught the gleam in his eye. He was such a smart ass. But at least he understood, to an extent. Giuseppe was family.

I sighed, resting my chin in my hand. "They just don't get it. They live in a world of black and white."

Gio rolled his eyes. "Oh they get it. They just don't care"
I looked at him skeptically. "I disagree...but it's unimportant."
He set down his tools and leaned back in his chair. "They're job is to be the upstanding citizens. Ours is to police the night. They'll keep doing what they always do, because that's what they feel is needed. We'll do the same, in their own upstanding way."

I waved it away. "The Asylum keeps bugging me. It's holding a whole slew of unknowns right now. Giuseppe said that neither he, nor Ray, were responsible for Natalie.. now we have these weird ghost bindings, using Smoking Mirrors... and no real idea of who might have done it."

Gio shrugged, looking mostly unconcerned. But then, that's how he always looked. "They were amplifying insanity. That gives us a suspect right there."

I drummed my fingers on the table and frowned. "You think Traveler was involved? That he did it?"
"No. I think the man with the flute did."
I considered that. It didn't feel right. "Doubtful. He was crazy, certainly, but I never felt as much malice from him.. at least not enough to put something like that together."
Giovanni looked at me with patronizing skepticism. "Really, Harper?"
I scowled at him. "Look. I'm not going to say its not possible. I won't discount that its a solid idea, but we shouldn't assume, one way or the other."

He accepted that with a shrug. "Maybe another Promethean made her?"
"Another possibility...but how did it get the parts?"
"You know.." Gio said thoughtfully, "the New Orleans Natalie said that Stone was followed.. ghosts on his back of people he'd killed.. what if he's not the mastermind behind all this? What if someone is using him?"
I shuddered. "God help us all. He's a big enough problem without having to deal with a potential puppet master.."

Silence followed once again. Gio just waited. None of these things were what was really bothering me, and he knew it.

It was a long moment before I spoke again. My voice was quiet, lower than last time. "Nobody ran today. Again."
He leaned back casually in his chair. "Yes. He did."
"I'm beginning to think we may not be able to trust him." I said finally.
Giovanni barked out a laugh. His voice was quiet, but not nearly the hushed tone I was using. "Trust? Harper, look who you hang out with. A death mage who cares more about ghosts than living people, a gangster who signed a, quite literal, deal with a demon, a shady faery assassin..and then there's you. A secret mongering blood sucker with daddy issues," I glared at him, but there wasn't much venom in it. "...and the airheaded, idiot werewolf."
"He's alright." I muttered absently.
"yeah. He's a good kid. Too good, really. Note to self, see to it Ori gets more jaded."
I rolled my eyes at him, my expression dour.
"None of us trust each other." He said.

"You know what I mean." I snapped.
Giovanni heaved a long suffering sigh. "We're all useful, and act in accordance with our nature. And we stand up for each other."
I stood and began pacing a small path in front of the table. "And what happens when we can't rely on that anymore? We're stronger than the sum of our parts, when we work together. We lose something important if all of us aren't on the same page." I stopped and glared at Gio, expression hard and unyielding. "You don't leave anyone behind."
He shook his head. He thought I was being silly. I knew I was being practical.

"He brought us help, didn't he?" He asked me softly. I frowned and started pacing again, eyes on the floor. "He doesn't usually run.. you don't usually fixate on finding one lost soul.." I hesitated, sparing him a glance. he met my eyes and held them. "What makes someone go against their nature?..Stress. The Freehold is about to get demolished. The guy is a freakin' powder keg, ready to go.. he's about to come apart at the seems. Its enough to make anyone act erratic."

I scowled but sunk back down in my chair. I didn't like it, but Giovanni had a point. "Fine. I'll cut him slack.. for now.

Gio nodded and his smug smirk returned. "Good."

I eyed him. "Speaking of that demon.. care to extrapolate?"
Gio's eyes shone with amusement. "First him, now me, eh?"
I held out my hands, palm up. "Just covering all my bases." I said sarcastically.

He gave a small one shoulder shrug. "Fair enough... I made a deal with Yzzacks. She kept me alive, gives me fun tricks.. I provided her with a way to experience the world on a daily basis. More accurately, our world. She's a demon of chaos. We are her entertainment."

I snorted but didn't deny him. We did tend to stir up trouble. "So how much control does she get over you?"
"So far, she hasn't exercised any."
"That's inspiring." I muttered.
"Harper, we work together because it's useful, and when it's not, we get out of each other's way and try not to step on each others toes. If one of us needs help, they usually get it. That's what we have here. And it will stay that way until someone is no longer useful.. and then they won't be around anymore. If I had it my way, I'd be up there hunting down and killing Mattheson. But we've got other things to attend to here, for now. Even if it doesn't concern me as much as finding Mattheson."

It was a little startling, but not all that surprising to hear Giovanni sum up his view of our little group. We didn't agree, though. He saw everyone here as tools in his tool box. Means to ends. Sure, he was willing enough to help us out.. because he was smart enough to know that abusing tools breaks them.

It was possible there was something else there.  He did seem to get pretty pissed when any of us got roughed up.But if there was, he kept it locked up pretty tightly.

I had a different view. I wouldn't go as far as to call them friends...Nobody, especially, annoyed me too much to qualify for that..  but they were comrades. You might not like a soldier in your platoon, but you'd risk your life for him in a heartbeat.

I let it go, for now. It was food for thought though.. and I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a bit disappointing.

But I said nothing about that. Instead, I focused on the issues at hand. "We might need Mattheson, you know."
Gio's voice went hot with suppressed rage in an instant. "I'm going to kill him."
I meet his fiery gaze with cool and collected eyes. "I'm not saying I'm going to stop you.. but there's no reason we can't both have our way."
"You'll have to keep me from it long enough to get your shit done."
I smirked at him. "I do love a challenge."

His eyes narrowed, just briefly. "We all burn for our sins."

I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest. "God, you're melodramatic."

Nobody walked by, heading to the room our illustrious visitor was in.
Gio's anger vaporized, like it had never been there at all. "Oh! Watch this! It's gonna be good!" Gio murmured to me in a conspiratorial tone.
I grinned slightly and shifted on my chair, craning my neck to see into the dark room.

We heard the sound of a muffled gasp, a quiet sound of surprise.
Gio looked perplexed, and rather disappointed. "Damn.. I would have expected more screaming."
I shook my head and stood. "Is he hurt?"
Gio nodded. "He's pretty banged up. Not fatal or anything, or I would have had you look at him already. But I'm sure he could use some attention."
I started for my kit, right as Nobody called from the room, "Harper! Get your kit and get in here!" His voice was urgent. I looked at Gio and he just rolled his eyes. Guess Giovanni wasn't the only melodramatic one in the house.

I went for the kit. I grabbed the handle and pulled the heavy kit over one shoulder and appeared in the doorway only a moment later.

Frost looked awful, which probably explained Nobody's distress. Both eyes were swollen shut, his lips were cracked and bleeding in several places. He had contusions all over his head and face. His body proved to be much the same. He had fingers bent out at odd angles.

All in all, he was in bad shape, but Giovanni was right, nothing was fatal. Just..really ugly. Nobody was crouched next to his chair, and I could smell fairy dust in the air.

Or that last part might have been my imagination.. coupled with deductive reasoning that Nobody had already tried to heal some of the damage. I pushed him away and got to work on the unconscious man. Correction.. unconscious boy. The kid couldn't have been older than 16.. but it was hard to tell with his face so messed up.

I went about setting fingers and other broken bones. When I cut his shirt off, I sucked in a quick breath. Ribs poked out through the skin. I began to reconsider my original assessment. I kept one eye on him as I set the bones back into place. He never stirred. He was completely out.

Which might not be a good thing, considering the extent of the trauma he took to the head.

I had just finished wrapping his ribs when Nadi walked into the room. She looked at Frost, then at me. Or more specifically, the blood all over my hands. "May I help?"

I stood and took a step back, gesturing with the towel I grabbed to wipe my hands. "By all means. I've done all I can do."

She gave me a curt nod and stood next to the chair. Her hands hovered over his ruined body for a moment, trying to find somewhere to rest them that wouldn't cause him pain. There was no safe place. Finally, she just touched her finger tips to his shoulders, closed her eyes.. and made with a light show.

It was hard to tell what she was doing with all the magic flying around. I thought she might be moving her hands, but it was nigh impossible for me to look at it for any length of time. It wasn't blinding or anything... it just made me uncomfortable. couple that with the fact that she was speaking in that weird language that made my brain hurt, and you have the beginnings of a major migraine.

But it didn't last long. When she stepped back, he looked a million times better. He looked.. human again...for lack of a better term. He had also transitioned from unconscious from pain, to sleeping peacefully.

Nobody shook his shoulder gently.

He groaned and rolled his head forward, blinking furiously. "Uh.. where.. where am I?"
"Safe." I said softly.
"Frost, what happened?" Nobody asked with the same gentle tone I had used.
"Who..who are you people?" His eyes wouldn't quiet focus.
"Friends.. why did the men take you?" I asked him.
He furrowed his brow, as if trying to remember, then muttered, "Because they.. found the egg.."

And that was too much for him. He feel back into an exhausted sleep. None of us were willing to wake him again from it. He might have been mostly healed. But that kind of beating takes it out of you. Not only physically, but emotionally and mentally. He needed sleep to recover, in more ways than one.

That didn't keep me from being more than a little frustrated though. The idea that someone in the Lanceum Sanctum had ghoul plants in the Santore tower made me very nervous. I needed to know what he knew. I felt like I needed it in a hurry too.

So I decided to read his mind. It's a remarkably easy thing to do, generally speaking. It gets a little tougher with supernaturals, but changeling or not, if you're unconscious, its hard to battle someone snooping through your head.

So I did it.

And it HURT.

There was a barrage of information too overwhelming to process. I wasn't just watching one movie on fast forward, I was watching 5 of them, all at once. My brain isn't made to undertake that much stimulus all at once. It was information overload. There was so much to process that I couldn't feel my own body anymore. My consciousness was overwhelmed. I was locked into this nightmarish movie reel, where the images weren't terrifying as much as they were just oppressive in their quantity.

It felt like years before I came back to myself, gasping and covered in blood. I was curled on my side on the floor, lying in a rather large puddle of dark vitae, the werewolf on top of me. I was aching, inside and out, exhausted...

and hungry.

"Get. off." I croaked. Ori jumped back, fast as lightning.
"Fuck me.." I cursed, spitting more blood. 
"Not even with someone elses cold, dead dick, Harper." Giovanni replied. He must have showed up while I'd been out. I glowered at him. Leave it to Giovanni to take my expression of pain literally.
"Funny.. weren't you the one talking about being inside me last night?" I shot back, my voice thready and lacking the sarcastic conviction.
Gio put on a horrified face, eyes sparklingly behind the mask. "Not like that."

I pushed myself up on my elbows.

"What did you see?" Nobody blurted. I just held up a hand and he feel into an impatient silence. Jesus Christ he was pushy.

"Ori. Do me a favor."
The werewolf looked at me uneasily. "What?"
"My room. Dresser. Left drawer.. two vials. Get them. And get them quickly." I coughed up more dark blood, and something more solid. My control was quickly waning.
"What is it?" He asked suspiciously.
"Just GO!" I snarled, my voice choked and strained.
"Blood, you idiot." Gio said, simultaneously.
Ori bolted from the room.
I clutched my head in my hands and tried not to look at Frost. He was still covered in blood. Even dried, I could smell it. I focused on not breathing. Which also meant not talking.

Ori was gone only a moment. He handed me the vials, and I spared no time in guzzling the contents of both. I tossed the glass aside and shivered. The blood wasn't warm, but it at least took the edge off. I sat up slowly, taking the towel Gio handed me and mopping at the vitae on my face as best I could. I still probably looked like something out of a horror flick.
"Was that the werewolf blood?" Nobody asked.
I nodded.
Ori went a shade pale. "Mine? You kept that?"
I raised a brow at him. "Well.. yes. That's what it was for.. backup." My voice sounded normal again.. mostly.
"Have you tried the changeling blood yet?" Nobody asked.
I shook my head and ran my fingers through my hair. It was nigh impossible. Red locks were plastered against my face with the dark fluid, and more of it was soaked into my scalp. I settled for smoothing it out of my face for now. "No. I don't know what it will do to me. Her's either." I gestured to Nadi with the towel.

"I'm looking forward to the day you get really desperate and need to take some of my blood. I'm very curious as to what effect that will have." Gio said thoughtfully.
I grimaced and leaned heavily against an empty chair. I didn't trust my legs yet. "Me too, Giovanni.."

I went silent and hung my head for a moment. I felt like shit.

Then the memories all came crashing back to me, and I smiled. I remembered it. All of it. It hadn't made sense at the time, but once my brain got around to interpreting it all, it was right there.

I looked up to tell the others and the words died in my throat.

Nadi had my blood on her hands. She had, presumably, tried to help Ori hold me down. As I looked up, she had just finished wiping her wet hands on the sleeve of Nobody's t-shirt. He glared and simply leaned down...


The word didn't even manage to make it out before he had leaned down and licked the blood, staring at Nadi.. trying to unsettle her.

"Fuck.."  I said with feeling.
Nobody suddenly twitched.. shook himself. "Hot DAMN!" He did a freaking standing back flip. I shit you not. A back flip. I rubbed my eyes. Goddammit.

When I looked up again, Gio was smirking at me. "Well.. this should put your fears to rest."
"Not really.." I grumbled. I watched Nobody freak out from the effects of the vampire blood.

"I feel like the shit!" He exclaimed. he was brething heavily, and if he had eyes at the moment, I knew they'd be heavily dilated.
I fixed him with a cold and serious glare. "We need to talk later.. in private."
He looked like he wanted to be concerned about that, but he was too high to give a shit.

Just. Great.

I stood, shakily, and sat in a chair, instead of in the pool of cold blood. I knew that I'd need to clean up pretty damn fast.. before Nobody came down off his high.. and thought maybe it would be a good idea to take some of it with him.

I was now faced with an interesting problem. I set it aside for now. I needed to tell them what I'd learned in case it started to fade.

I had seen 5 sets of memories at once. Information overload. The seizure wasn't surprising. My head wasn't meant to be able to interpret that much information at once.. unfortunately.

But I remembered all of it now. Frost would never stay dead.

He had never escaped from his Fae keeper, the Queen of Frozen Needles. He'd struck a deal. And from what I knew of Frost, that was rather in character for him. As long as he came back to report to her, she would let him go. Whenever he died, he'd appear back in her domain, and make the report. An egg would appear, somewhere in the world, never in the same place twice.. and once it was broken, the person who did the deed would become Frost.. sans all memories of his previous lives. I had watched as an art collector accidentally dropped the egg, a large piece of what resembled black polished glass. It shattered when it hit the ground.. and when he looked up again, he'd taken on Frost's features.

He betrayed many changelings during his first life. Dozens, maybe hundreds of them, dragged back into the realm of their captures.. it was enough to make me sick... if I hadn't seen what came next.

During his second life.. he actually found a freehold. A family. And eventually he died. He appeared back in her realm again.. and he lied. He told her half truths and complete deceptions. He did not give up a single changeling. But she knew it. And what more, he knew she'd know. She tortured him. Time in that place.. its weird. I had countless memories of the pain she inflicted on him. I don't know if it was days, weeks, or several lifetimes. But he never gave them up.

And when someone found the egg, he was freed from her.

But it happened again. Three, four.. and finally five times that egg was cracked.. five lives he lived. He only ever betrayed his people the first time. And so he was tortured.. every time.

I focused on the most recent memories. Five men in suits grabbed a kid off the street and forced him to break the egg at gun point. 

Then, the beatings.

I started in on the information. Nobody didn't let me get past "struck a deal with a fae" before he freaked out.

"Is the freehold in danger?!" He demanded.
I scowled at him. "Calm your ass down and let me finish."
He started to get up in my face and go off about how important the freehold was, I cut him off. "It's fine. Sit. down." I gave him a look that said I'd rip his fucking teeth out if he came any closer.
He glared at me. He didn't sit, but he didn't come any closer either.

I went through the information, eyes unfocused, trying to visualize all the scenes as I spoke.

"Did any of the guys who grabbed him have a fucked up ear?" Giovanni asked, looking thoughtful.
"Yeah.. one of them." I confirmed.
"He's dead. He was one of the guys in the security room beating the shit out of Frost." Gio said.

I nodded, and looked at Nobody. "Can you teach him how to use his powers again?"
"Hell yes I can."
"You're powers are different, though." I pointed out.
He shrugged. "Similar enough. I'll figure it out."
"Keep in mind, this isn't a matter of breaking down a dam and letting his memories flood back. He's a blank slate..though, there are certain qualities that were pretty consistent.."
"I'll figure it out. Either way, I can't take him back to the freehold until he's trained. Too many enemies that might take advantage of him.." Nobody said.
"DON'T take him there!" My vehemence surprised everyone, including myself.

Everyone blinked at me. "I just said.. I wasn't going to.." Nobody said reproachfully. "But why do YOU say I shouldn't?"
"Because.." I searched for the words.. and couldn't find them. I had the memory, right there in my mind. I could see the reason.. vivid as could be.. but I couldn't say it. Instead, I crossed my arms and scowled at them all. "Just don't, alright?"

They regarded me a moment more, then turned back to the conversation. "You'll have to teach him to fake it." Gio said.
"I'm not sure I want to do that to him.." Nobody said, softly.

"Let him decide." I said.

Nobody nodded. He started looking Frost over again, making sure he was going to be alright. He grabbed a pen and paper and started scribbling a note.

I got up to clean up the mess. My legs were only a little shaky.

It didn't take long, really. I looked down at myself, covered in cold vitae.. I looked up to find Gio watching me. I brushed past him, heading for my room, and a shower.

"Totally worth it.." I murmured to him as I made my way down the stairs. I didn't have to look back to know he'd have a giant smug smirk plastered all over his disgustingly Italian face.


I descended the stairs towards my room and knew he was behind me the whole way, padding along on silent feet. He wasn't trying to sneak up on me, it was just instinct. I heaved the reinforced door open and stepped inside, turning to face Nobody just as he pulled the heavy thing shut behind him. Colors of anxious fear danced through his aura.

"What did you want to talk to me about?"
I looked him up and down, my frown pensive. How much did I want to tell him? At least enough to scare the bejezzus out of him..."The blood."
Excitement flared for a brief instant, along with a combination of colors I'd come to associate with addiction. Desire, hunger, loathing.. it was a complex medley.
"It was a rush." He said quietly.
I nodded slowly, eyes continually flicking over his aura. It was the only sure fire way to read Nobody when he didn't have a face. "Yeah. It is. It's also highly addictive."
The excitement was replaced by scarlet fear.

"You're shitting me." He said, voice lacking conviction.
I met his eyeless gaze with a steady stare. "Not even slightly. It's the best drug you'll ever have. How do you think we keep ghouls around?"
He started fidgeting nervously. "So.. is there a way to break it?"
"Its just like any addiction, Nobody. Willpower. Don't take another hit for long enough, and you'll be fine. But every time you give in to it, it will make the next time that much harder."

If it sounded like I was talking from experience, it's because I was. I knew a thing or two about addiction.

"So am I a ghoul now?" His voice took on a slightly frantic edge.
"No. Ghouling someone takes an act of will. You... you're just an addict."
He got a little green. "Shit. Shitshitshit."
He didn't have to say what he was thinking. I should have known better.

We both knew it, and as much as I love opportunities to give Nobody shit, this was hardly the time. I actually felt bad for the guy.

But then, I'd been addicted to vampire blood before. He had no idea how bad it was going to get. Not yet, anyway.

I managed not to shudder when I thought back to those nights, locked in a windowless room. Pleading with Giuseppe to let me out.. to share his blood.. or let me hunt. He did neither. He kept me in there, and taunted me with it.. until I got over it.

It was a horrible experience.

"So what do I do?" Nobody said, interrupting my memory.
"Well, we could lock you in a room for weeks and force you to get over it.." He jerked in surprise. I continued. "But that would pose more than one logistical problem." I gave him a wry smirk. He glared at me.
"Look, its just something you'll have to push through. There is no magic cure. Its a drug, like any other. It's up to your own willpower and determination to not give into it every time you see vitae..."
He gave me a dubious look. I winced slightly. My propensity for bleeding from the eyes was going to make this harder on him.

"But.." He began, aura now a whirlwind of surging colors, strong, conflicting emotions. He wasn't taking it well.

But there wasn't anything else I could do. I sighed. "It's on you to beat it. You'll be fine. Now get out."

He seemed about to protest, but thought better of it and just left instead. Shaken.

If he only knew. I didn't mention anything about the Vinculum. That was secret that I kept to myself. Giovanni knew.. but I doubted he'd say a word. But maybe I should tell Nobody. He was freaked out, but not freaked out enough. I could see the wheels in his head turning, nearly as well as I could see his aura. He was weighing the pros and cons of being a ghoul.

The problem was.. he didn't know all the cons.

Hell, I would be lying if I said it wasn't tempting to slip him more blood.. bind him to me further.. two more drinks and he'd have a damn hard time ever running away from our fights ever again. I wouldn't have to ghoul him.. just be his fucking pusher.

I shook my head to get rid of the notion and turned on the shower. I didn't trust the Vinculum. I didn't like it. It could be a useful tool, but I was skeptical of how far one could really push it before it snapped, and the victim's will overwhelmed it. I'd take real loyalty over supernaturally induced love any night.

I knew of too many people who'd defeated it.

And logic aside, I just couldn't do that to any of them.

I spent awhile in the shower, letting the water beat away at the dried blood. It took several shampoos and a lot of prying with my fingernails before the water flowed clean into the drain. I tried to let the temptation flow away with it.

I was only partially successful

An hour later I padded barefoot into the lab, scrubbing my wet hair with a towel. Gio was the only one around.

"Thank you for your time, I will see you soon." Giovanni said into his cell before hanging up. He looked up at me with a grin. "You free for the rest of the night?"
"Let me check my calendar..." I paused, draping the towel over my shoulders. "Yes." I said, dryly.
Giovanni continued grinning, impervious to my snark. "Good, because we need to go visit someone who might be able to tell us more about Stone."

 I blinked at him. He just grinned wider. The bastard.


We parked in front of a tall office building, the same place Giovanni had killed the demon. The security guard gestured to the elevators and we headed to one of the upper floors.

"So this Pelinore guy.. any idea what he is?" I asked as the elevator rose.
"Not really... but I have a few guesses." Giovanni replied as the door slid open with a soft ding.

We entered the main door of the office, into a reception area that was exquisitely decorated. All dark woods and deep colors.. hammered gold and polished metals.. it was gorgeous without being ostentatious.. It looked very, very expensive.

"No wards.." Gio muttered as his eyes roamed the room.
I frowned and took a closer look. I took a few steps into the room and turned in a slow circle. "More than that.. no natural wards. There's not even a threshold..."
Giovanni followed my gaze and nodded.

The door frame was slightly crooked There were peices of the aritecture that would noramly form a natural barrier, but they had all been tweaked jsut slightly to avoid the formation of any sort of threshold. Quite purposely.

It was bizarre.

Gio shrugged. "Guess he doesn't need them."
"Or is trying to make a point.." I muttered.

There was no one to greet us in the front room.
I started towards one of the carved doors. "This way.."
"How do you know?" Gio asked, following behind me.
"I smell blood."

We opened the heavy door and found ourselves in a parlor. It was decorated with the same expensive  decor, but still managed to be comfortable. There was a serving tray on a low coffee table. It held two glasses and a decanter of a amber liquid, probably scotch or brandy, and a matching goblet that was full of blood so fresh it was steaming.

It took all my self control not to bolt to the table and chug it. I was still starving. We entered slowly, regarding the room with the same intensity as we had the previous one. But my gaze kept sliding to that goblet.

It felt like years before we made our way to that table. I picked up the cup and inhaled deeply. I wasn't so starved as to not take precautions. Coil training had helped me hone my...palate, if you will.

Female.. between 18-22, healthy, and free of drugs, as far as I could tell. It had also been given freely, more than likely. That part had nothing to do with Coil training. It was only minutes old, and it sat in the glass too cleanly to have been taken forcibly. I set it down with a great effort of will. My hand shook just slightly.

Gio picked it up and waved it under his nose like a fucking sommelier."Ahh, A-.."
"AB+ actually.." I said, blandly.
He smirked at me and put the glass down. "You'd know better than me.. you're the bloodsucker."

"There is actually little sucking involved in the process. It would be, therefore, more accurate to use the term, 'blood drinker' rather than 'blood sucker'." Said a cultured voice from behind us.

Pelinore was a pale man, just about as pale as me, which is saying something. His eyes were a pale shade of gray, the sclera tinged slightly pink. His hair was platinum blonde, the kind that usually only comes from a bottle, unless, like Pelinore, you happen to be an albino. He was only a few inches taller than me, which put him at about 6 feet. He was dressed in a tailored, three piece suit and has impeccable posture. His stride was sure and graceful. He held out a manicured hand to me as he approached. A diamond ring glinted on one finger.

"Ms. O'Shea, a pleasure to meet you."
I shook the offered hand. "Pleasure's mine." I said without smiling.
"Please. Sit." He gestured to the couches surrounding the coffee table, and sat. He took the decanter and poured two glasses of liquor. He sipped one.

We sat, and I picked up the goblet and drank. I figured if he hadn't fucked with the scotch, he hadn't fucked with the blood.

Besides, it was getting cold.

He settled back into the seat and rested his ankle on the opposite knee. "So tell me.. what can I do for you?"
Giovanni leaned back as well, but he didn't touch his drink. I never thought I'd see the day that Giovanni proved more paranoid than me. "Like I said before, I need information on Mattheson.. and Stone.. whereabouts.. abilities.. anything else that you might find useful.."

He took a thoughtful sip. I found myself leaning forward in my seat and forced myself to relax, and sunk back into the leather.
"Stone.. is distinctly difficult to pin down. Considering that he is closer to the source than either you or I, and has been alive for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years, he has measures in place to disrupt any attempt to find him."

I focused on his aura as he spoke. It looked normal.

"Understandably." Gio said.
Pelinore looked at me. "Surely such things, and the nature of their usefulness, would be well within your realm of comprehension." I just nodded. He continued. "As for his abilities.. that is difficult to assess as well. He has had a long time to hone his skills, many opportunities to practice. He is powerful."

Giovanni's face split into an arrogant smirk. Pelinore regarded him with a pale raised brow. "You are passant.. strong.. however.." he held up his glass. "Take this, for example. Several different scotches may come from the same distillery, undergo the same process, sit in the same vats, use the same malted barley..however," He took an appreciative sip, "...age plays an important roll in the quality of the scotch. Some things simply only come from age, and not sheer strength."

Giovanni waved a dismissive hand. "I'm more concerned about Mattheson."
"Ah yes.. but fortunately, those two circles seem to be concentric, do they not?"
Gio shrugged. "I suppose so."

 Pelinore set the glass on the table. "Matheson's power lies in his vices. He indulges them at whim." He looked thoughtful. ".But then, we are all creatures of our vices..."
"We know something about that." Gio said with a smirk in my direction.
"We all do." Pelinore continued. "In fact, indulging in such things are the wellspring of our power. Matheson.. loves a fight. He revels in being above the mortal law. He is well suited to the world of organized crime, in that way. He insinuates himself within an organization and becomes invaluable. Then he leaves when it begins to bore him. The situation in Chicago became too.. complicated." Giovanni looked overly pleased with himself.  Pelinore didn't seem to notice. "New York is much more suited to his tastes right now.."

"The Genovese Family." Giovanni said.
"And his powers?" Gio proded. His voice betrayed a trace of his eagarness. It was understandable.

Pelinore gave a delicate shrug. "Less substantial than Stones, truly. However, he is not weak. During our encounter, only the first two punches made any difference. After that, he was notoriously difficult to injure."

Pelinore had fought Mattheson? That was certain an interesting tidbit..

Giovanni's grin was fierce.  "I guess its a good thing I don't plan on injuring him, then."

Pelinore just nodded. "There is more information that Icould give you.. surveillance that could be set up, wire taps acquired, contractors hired.. but it would be.. expensive. "
"How expensive?" I asked, as Giovanni said, "What do you want?"

A small smile graced his face. "I want for nothing. But those who would obtain the information have prices of their own."

Giovanni nodded understanding.

"Could Mattheson be a weakness to Stone?" I asked in the pause. I'd let Giovanni run the show mostly, get his information on Mattheson, but Stone was my focus.
"Most certainly. " Pelinore said, as though it should be obvious. "There are rituals that are have been known to destroy entire bloodlines."

Maybe Rowan would...
"No." Gio snapped. His gaze was intense and serious. He really did know me way too well. I tried to give him an innocent smile, but all I really managed was a impudant smirk.

He glared at me a fraction of a second longer before my smirk faded and I urged him on with a tilt of the head. There were other things we needed to know. He gave me a sight nod.

Like I said. Too well.

"Maybe you can tell us.. a few years ago, there were 13 young women named Natalie G. They were all killed at roughly the same time on the same night. The whole thing was made to look like a ritual of some sort...We have it on good authority that Stone killed one himself."

Pelinore's gaze was suddenly far away. "Yes.. 2:07am on August the 3rd.."

Gio and I stared at him, both caught off guard. "Do you know what the ritual was for?" I managed to stammer through the surprise.

Pelinore's eyes came back to reality and settled on mine. "Some things require ritual to summon. Some things require an offering.. a sacrifice. We killed them because this one needed a sacrifice of innocents."

Surprise was replaced with instant rage. Red and scalding. Had I still been holding the goblet, I probably would have crushed it. I managed to keep my anger in check. My stare was probably more of a glare. Pelinore met my eyes steadily though.
"What did you summon?" Giovanni said. His eyes flicked to me and narrowed for the briefest of moments. He was telling me to cool it. I gave him a much less subtle look that told him to fuck off.

Pelinore's voice became hushed. "Something brilliant.. and high above what we could ever possibly reach. Something gloriously bright.."
"Why?" It sounded more like an accusation than a question when I said it.

Instead of answering me, Pelinore stood and walked to one wall. He punched a quick series of buttons on a small key pad. We heard the sound of a mechanism coming to life. We heard heavy locks resound from both of the doors in the room. The room literally decompressed as the wall opened to reveal a large trophy case with a vaccum seal.

In the trophy case were two huge feathered wings, both ending in bloody stumps. Exactly what you'd picture an angel's wings to look like, soft white feathers that almost glowed. And they'd been ripped off.

"Quashallim..." Giovanni whispered.
"We all kept trophies.." Pelinore said, putting one palm flat against the glass and looking up at those wings with something like longing written across his face.

"What did Stone keep?" I asked, staring at the case.
"Pieces..Components. Blood, hair, fingernails, bits of bone..presumably to fuel whatever rituals he was conducting off in his own corner. As for myself.." He paused, then shivered slightly, tearing his eyes away from the glass to regard us. "I was just in it for the fight. A once in an existence experience.."

I sat back down on the couch, having jumped to my feet the second the doors had begun to lock. I pursed my lips, pissed, but kept my damn mouth shut.
"Did you take her eyes?" Giovanni asked, steel in his voice.

The wall slid back to hide the trophy case again. "The young woman I was.. responsible for.. had just lost her mother. To cancer. Despite our best efforts, the disease overtook her. She came to me, after that. Rather than be responsible for raising two young siblings, she made a bargain with me. She already felt her life was over." He shrugged, as though it was just another every day business transaction. "I took care to be sure she went gently..after that I do not know, nor do I care to know, what became of her body."

He returned to his seat on the comfortable couch.  "You could perhaps inquire to Mattheson about that, however."
Giovanni's grin was more like a baring of teeth. "I was hoping you would say that."

"Why are you helping us?" I asked. I was a million times more suspiscious than I had been five minutes ago. Maybe I was slipping..

He steepled his fingers and regarded me over the top of them. "One could argue that I am not. If you begin pursuing avenues against Thomas Mattheson, it is surely to attract the attention of Stone.. a fate I would not wish on the direst of foes." He paused, gaze shifting to Giovanni. "One could also say that I am curious. How far are you willing to tread into your other nature?"
Gio just shrugged, looking utterly unconcerned. "If my family is any indication, as far as necessary."
Pelinore raised a brow. "Mattheson and Stone hardly hold back.."
Giovanni made a sour face. "Not that family. Either way, its good to know we aren't the only ones who are driven by curiosity." He smirked at me, I gave him a chilly little smile.
Pelinore seemed to ignore our exchange. "Indeed. several of us even have a little wager going on you."
"Bet the farm." Gio said, without hesittation.

Pelinore smiled. "As far as I know, only one of us has a farm. Is there anything else I can assist you with?"
"I'd like the names of the ones who can look in on Mattheson, if you would.."
"Certainly" He produced a pad and a pen from a pocket and scribbled something, handing the paper to Gio. Giovanni pocketed it without looking. We both stood at the same time, without a word or look at the other. "Thank you for your help..." Gio said, sincerely. "Though, I must ask.."

Pelinore stood as well. "Yes?"
"Out of curiosity, who are you betting on?"
"You of course, however, technically, we all are."
"So its not a matter of if I fall, but how long it takes?"
Pelinore's smile became cryptic. "Please let me know if I can be of further assistance."

We left. Most of my rage had subsided, and all that was left was a slow simmering anger. As we exited through the reception area, there were now two attractive young women at the desk. one had a thick bandage on her left wrist and was sipping at a glass of orange juice as she worked. They both gave us sunny smiles as we stepped into the elevator.

The Chicago air was chilly as ever when we stepped out onto the side walk, but I hardly noticed. Snow crunched under our shoes as we walked back to the car.

"You know..." I said, breaking the evening stillness. "I've been trying to figure out what that ritual was for.. well, since we found out it was a ritual at all. The answer seems.. somewhat unsatisfying."
"Oh?" Gio said, distractedly.
"Though.. I suppose now the question is.. what kinds of rituals do you need angel parts for?" I said thoughtfully, then glanced at Gio, frowning. "And how did you know the word..what was it? Quashallim?"
"Yousef. He mentioned once that he had hunted one.. and would never do it again."
I pulled up short next to the car and glared at him. "Yousef was involved."
Gio opened the passenger side and glanced at me over the roof of the car. "Lets talk about it back at the shop." And then ducked his head into the vehicle.
I looked around, suddenly feeling exposed, but saw nothing. Not that that meant a damn thing. I got in the car and we headed home.


The pack was getting ready to head out when we stepped into the relative warmth of the shop. Roxanne looked up as we came in and gave a curt nod. "Gotta go. Just got a call that something happened in our territory."
I raised a brow. "Is everything alright?"
She nodded. "I think so. We left Tommy to watch it. I trust him."
I managed not to roll my eyes. I had to admit, as annoying as he was, he got the job done. Usually.

"How're they doin' anyway?" Giovanni asked as he settled himself down in front of one of the numerous work tables.
Roxanne gave him an incredulous look.
I shrugged, leaning back against one wall. "They don't tell us much."
"You know, unless they do something amazingly silly.. like bring someone back from the dead." Gio said, cheerfully.
Roxanne bared her teeth in a grin, her eyes flashing angrily. "Keep talking and I will tear your throat out with my bare hands and make you eat it." The last words came out as a snarl.
The rest of us went still. Nobody and I exchanged a look, Becca had gone pale. Nadi was, as always, unphased.
Gio just started working on the gizmo sitting on the table, utterly unconcerned. "You know where I live."
A growl that was not human in the slightest trickled from her very human lips. She balled her hands into fists, spun on her heel and stalked off into the other room.

Tension eased out of the rest of us.

Gio never looked up, but his eyes flicked in Davareaux's direction. "She's going to get herself killed."
Davareux's expression was bored. "Yeah, those guys mouthing off all the time.. real dangerous." He said sarcastically.
Gio shrugged. "One day, it might."
"Haven't seen it yet." And he followed after Roxanne.

"Care not to get us all maimed or killed trying to prove your points, Giovanni?" I muttered darkly. he ignored me.

"Everything is fine, as far as we know." Larissa said, answering Giovanni's original question. "They're all in one piece.. well.. except Karl."
"Say what?" Nobody piped up.
She smiled. "He went and lost an arm."
Gio an I both looked up sharply. He gave me a shit eating grin, and I couldn't help but laugh, albeit without much humor.
Larissa furrowed her brow in confusion.
"Left or right?" Gio asked casually.
Giovanni jumped up and grabbed a wooden box off one of the tables. "Can you give him something for me?" He handed her the box, she struggled with it a moment. It wasn't heavy, but it was rather ungainly. Stepping Feather took it from her. Larissa still looked confused, but she was also used to us by now, I was sure. She didn't press the issue.

Besides, it would be rather obvious what was going on once Karl opened that crate and pulled the Hand of Glory from the packing material. As though we needed to give Karl any more help in being a fucking badass..

But hey, none of us felt like lopping off an arm to use the thing.

"It's good to have you back, Stepping Feather." Nobody said and offered his hand.
"That it is." Giovanni agreed.
Stepping Feather juggled the box to get a free hand and traded grips with the changeling.
"It's good to see you again." I said with feeling.
He set down the box and pulled me into a tight hug. I grunted at the strenth of it, then hugged him back fiercely, so much so that I even surprised myself. We both pulled away smiling.

He retrieved the box and left with Larissa. Alexandria appeared from the other room and followed them out a moment later, giving us a wave.

The shop was suddenly quiet again. Gio's tools made soft buzzing and chirping noises. I pulled up a stool and watched him work for a few minutes. Becca wandered off with Nadi, and Nobody left. I had no idea where Ori had gone off too.

I let the silence stretch for awhile, watching the tools move as I rolled the nights events over in my mind.

We knew three of the thirteen murders. Maybe four. Stone, Pelinore, Yousef, and possibly Mattheson. And we knew why, at least mostly. To kill an angel. I shuddered at the thought. I was by no means a saint, but even to me that hit a sour note.

I could assume that the parts Stone took were for his rituals to summon these gods we've been busy stopping.. but it might be more than that.

And then there was the issue of Yousef's trophy. What was it that he kept? And was it still in the shop?
And what would we do when we finally found Mattheson? How could we use him against Stone? I didn't know enough about blood magic to even hazard a guess, and as Giovanni had already pointed out, talking to Rowan about it would probably be a bad idea...

Maybe Father Nico could help.

The image of those bloody wings came to mind again. And Pelinore. I wondered what I should do about Pelinore...

"I don't like him." I said, finally.
Gio just kept tinkering.
I sighed and rubbed my eyes. It was another problem for another time. "What names did he give you?"
"Names of those like us, I suppose, but there's one name not on the list, the first one I'm going to talk too..a man who works in tv repair shop and specializes in surveillance."
"Well.. at least we have a decent lead now. That's slightly more than we had earlier tonight..." I muttered.

"Yup. Time to see what's further down this rabbit hole, Alice." He winked at me.
I stood and gave him a mock scowl. "Don't call me Alice..."

As negative as I'd sounded, it was true that we'd gotten some important answers tonight. And saved a friend. I couldn't really complain about that. The complications would just make things more interesting.

Problems aside, it had been a good night, and we didn't get many of those.
Giovanni's laughter followed me as I made my way down the stairs, smiling as I closed myself in my haven of darkness for the day.

November 16, 2010

Delayed Again

Sorry for the delay again. New post will be up soon. Hopefully by the end of the week. If not, by the beginning of next week. We will be taking a break from the WoD campaign until our awesome ST is done with finals, but should resume very soon. The next post will catch the story up to current state, and if needed, I'll put some filler posts..either more flashbacks, or maybe some new adventures that I made up all by my lonesome.

Thanks for reading!

November 5, 2010

Tracking Down Ghosts, Part II

The others were nearly done with their reconnaissance by the time Nadi and Alexandria made it over to the sewers nearer to Maury's home. The others had been able to take cars, or at least some form of public transit. The two mages had to walk through the dark tunnels. Nadi was none to happy about that. Ever since she'd seen Stone in his true form (or maybe it wasn't his true form, but it terrifying nonetheless) she'd been afraid of the dark. She also had little desire to run into Joseph Traveler again.. but she wasn't going to say anything in front of anyone else.

So she and Alexandria got to go into the sewers. Nadi had a rather good memory, and navigated the tunnels well in the dark. At every few turns, she would call out in hopes that she could talk to the Collector before he jumped them.

"Hello? Is anyone there?" Nadi called in her low voice. The acoustics of the sewers sent it bouncing down the tunnels in eerie echos.

A familiar voice responded, somewhere above them, or in front of them.. .or maybe behind them.. the echoing tunnels made it nearly impossible to tell. "You are not alone.."

The sisters stopped walking. Nadi didn't try to sweep the flashlight about to look for the Collector. She knew it was a pointless gesture.. even if it would make her feel less nervous. "This is my sister, Alexandria."

"Does she promise to do no harm?" The voice was androgynous, with a hissing and clicking quality to it, almost like a trio singing three different parts in a song at the same time.

"If no harm is done to me..I agree." Alexandria responded, eyes roaming the darkness, searching for the bearer of the voice.

"Why are you here?"

"We are looking for Stepping Feather."

"The Indian?"

Nadi nodded. "Yes."

"You are too late." The Collector hissed in its disjointed song. A creepy, disturbing, and terrifying song that shot right through the reasoning part of the brain and straight to the animal instincts, the part of the brain that has nothing to do with rational thought, and everything to do with fleeing dangerous predators in the dark.

But Nadi was not one to be ruled by her baser instincts. Her head was screaming at her to runrunrun.. get into the light.. it was the only place safe from getting devoured. But she stood her ground, and didn't so much as flinch when the Collector seemed to materialize in front of them, appearing from nowhere.

The vampire  was all long limbs and disturbing features. It was virtually naked, dirty and torn rags hanging from its freakishly thin apendages, but it was still impossible to tell if it was male or female. Lank, greasy hair fell down to the middle of its back, and would serve as a veil for its face had it not had patches missing. Its teeth were pointed and stained. It stared at them, somehow intimately aware of where both of them stood, despite the fact that it had no eyes. In fact, it had no eye sockets. Just smooth skin on an uninterrupted plane of the face. Its nose was barely more than two holes in that plane, which was only truly broken by its mouth and its dangerously sharp fangs.

It also looked like it had a bad run in with a chainsaw. Or more accurately, an angry werewolf. Bloodless gashes adorned its skeletal frame. Angry wounds that were slowly knitting themselves closed, even as they watched.

"You fought?" Nadi asked in a tone that was only a little more breathless than usual.

 "Yes, we were both very injured." It tilted its head to one side, a very bird like gesture. "He is alive." it said as though it suddenly realized that might be important to the mages. "He made it past all the extra security measure, all the mazes.. all the traps. I found him in Maxwell's study."

Nadi blinked once. Her version of a very surprised expression. "What was he doing?"

The Collector made a long series of clicks before answering. They echoed off the walls and cement floor. "The same thing Maury.. and you, did while there... went through books."

 Books.. it was possible that if she could see what he'd been reading, she could make a guess as to where he might head next. "Do you know which ones?"

The Collector bared its teeth in what was probably a smile. "They all look the same to me, but you can ask Maury."

 Nadi frowned. "He saw Stepping Feather?"

The Collector disappeared, its voice floating back to them in an eerily disembodied manner. "He did not leave his sanctuary. However, he was the one who informed me the Indian's presence. It was rather... embarrassing."

Nadi and Alexandria exchanged glances, then continued through the tunnels until they arrived in Maury's study. When they stepped foot inside and closed the large steel door behind them, they heard another heavy door open and shut, and a moment later, Maxwell Maury stood across the room. "You are looking for the lycanthrope that broke into my study earlier this evening." He said without preamble.

Nadi just gave a small nod. "We know he's gone now, I was wondering which journals he was going through."

He reached over and removed several leather bound journals from the shelves and held them out to her. "He seemed to be particularly interested in the entries concerned with the Cook County Asylum."

Nadi gave a curt nod and handed the books back to Maury. They both turned from each other, and walked away without another word.

Nadi pulled the door closed behind her, and opened the mental connection to the rest of the group. He is heading to Cook County. We should hurry.


The car came to a stop, gravel crunching under the tires. I had filled Davareaux in on the way over, telling him about the last time we had been here, chasing after the serial killer. We'd given life to the Promethean that had been put together from the pieces of all the Natalies that had been murdered, then we'd run from the monster known as a Mask, who shrugged off bullets, knives, and death magic like annoying mosquito bites. The Natalie Promethean was the only reason we'd made it out alive. Somewhere during the chase things had been set on fire. I think Nadi had been responsible for that one, but I couldn't be sure. It had been a pretty hectic situation. It hadn't been pretty, and I made sure he knew just how dangerous this place was.

The fire hadn't taken out the whole place, as I thought it would have. One side of the building was charred and sagging, but the other side was mostly still intact. I had no idea how the firemen had put out the blaze without getting their heads bitten off by an angry, nigh invulnerable monster.. but they had managed. There was police tape across the gate, which was unlocked.

I pulled out my cell and dialed Martindale. I needed to know if the Mask was even still there. He had said they'd send a team down to take care of it. If the Mask was gone, that would make our snooping much simpler, and much less deadly.


"Martindale.. Hope your night is going well. I need some information... did your guys ever get the Mask in Cook County?"

He gave an irritated grunt. "We looked everywhere. Had a whole team of your guys with me," I scowled. I was a long way from considering Taskforce Valkyrie 'my guys'. "There was no Mask."

I blinked, taken off guard. That was probably one of the last answers I had expected. The Mask was not a subtle creature. I doubted it had the wherewithal to hide successfully from a trained strike force. Irritation colored my voice and made my words sound slightly harsher than I intended. "Well that's fucking convenient."

I could almost hear Marindale's teeth grinding. He spoke with them clenched tightly shut. "Seeing as how something I've been hunting for years slipped through my fingers, again.. I'd say its decidedly inconvenient."

I rolled my eyes. Sarcasm was lost on some people. Or maybe it was just that much of a sore spot with him. I steered the conversation in a slightly more productive direction. "Do they usually just leave like that?"

"Usually, once a mask has made a nest, it won't leave without killing anyone trying to make it, as well as any person in the general vicinity."

"Where the hell would it have gone, then?" I asked, mostly to myself.

"There are all sorts of old sewer tunnels under that area.. maybe went down there..Why the sudden interest in the Mask?" He asked.

"Business bringing me back. Needed to know what to expect."

"Are you there now?"

I glanced up at the haunting building. It looked even more daunting than it had before, the charred and melted places made it seem nightmareishly resilient. "Yeah."

"You loaded for bear?"

I put a hand on one of the flash bangs I'd thought to take from the lab. No as much as I'd like to be.. I thought.

"Always." I said.

"Be careful."

I smirked at the phone. "Why Martindale, it's almost like you care."

He snorted. "Care, nothing. If you get torn to shreds, I have to deal with the fucking paperwork." And he hung up on me.

I put the phone away and Davareaux quirked a brow in silent question. I gave him the short version, then we ducked around the police tape and started walking through the tall grass. I decided to start at the back door. First, we'd retrace our steps from our original visit, then head up to the upper floors.

If the mask didn't show up to tear us apart, that is.

The back door was unlocked, even cracked slightly. We opened it as silently as possible and took careful steps into the dim building. The lower floor had been hollowed out, most of the interior walls gone. I was surprised it was still standing. It also made me realize that the Mask wasn't the only danger of being in such an unstable building. Vampire or not, being crushed by giant slabs of concrete wouldn't feel good, and wouldn't lend itself well to outrunning murderous monsters.

The kitchen looked unremarkable, as it had the first time we'd been here. I switched all communication to the mental link between Davareaux and I. I had no idea how sensitive the Mask's hearing was, and had little desire to find out.

If I give us more cover, will you be able to see?

I'm not really using my eyes. he replied, even his thoughts were quiet. I saw his nostrils flare, scenting the air.

I nodded once and let the darkness grow around us until it was downright inky. The shadows were so dense that they were nearly solid. I couldn't help but feel a little pleased with myself. I was getting better with the power. I briefly wondered if that reflected my mental state at all. Too soon to tell. I let my pupils expand to fill my eyes so I could see through my own creation, and we started down the hallway. Davaruex took point, and I gave him the directions.

First stop: the boiler room. It was a dead end, one entrance, one exit.. but it was necessary. We descended the stairs slowly and silently. Any small noises made where muffled by the darkness that followed us, keeping pace with our steps.

The subbasement looked no different than it had 2 months ago. The message was still scrawled across the wall in huge letters..lyrics to 'Weird Science', and a bent and mangled gurney that had held Natalie. It was still a mystery who had written them there, who had put together the Promethean. Giuseppe had said it hadn't been him, or Ray. I tore my eyes away from them, and focused on the task at hand.

I trained all my attention on my nose, and inhaled slowly.

Old dust.. ash (an involuntary shiver ran down my spine), sweat, and perfume. But the sweat smelled.. off somehow.

That sweat smells weird, but I can't really figure out how. Can you smell it? I asked Davareaux silently.

He came to an abrupt stop and held him arm out in front of me. I came up short. Then I heard it.


Deep, heavy breaths came from the furnace in the corner. The breathing of a huge sleeping creature. The doors were shut, and the metal bars on the doors looked like a giant hand had crushed them together and twisted.

One of the benefits of lacking a working circulatory system is that when you're terrified, your heart doesn't pound so hard in your head that you can't hear anything else. So I could hear every move the Mask made as fear shot through me like lightning. I had no illusions that I could take on that creature, even with Davareux and his rifle around.

Davareaux seemed to be of a similar sentiment, because we both started taking very slow, silent steps backwards, towards the stairs. We walked up them backwards, eyes never leaving that furnace. Once we reached the first floor, I shut the door to the lower levels and a small portion of the fear leaked out of my body, leaving behind a nervous caution. Mystery solved. I wonder how they missed it..

Davareux just shrugged, and we continued our silent search of the Asylum.

There was nothing much left of the first floor to search. Even the room that had been filled with furniture, the obstacle course that we'd had to transverse with the Mask hot on our heels, had been reduced to a room of piled ashes. So we hit the stairs, and made our way to the second floor.

I found myself coming up short at every little sound. I was wound tightly, but I found it to be essential to my survival for once. I just had to hope that I'd hear the screaming metal if the Mask made an attempt to exit the furnace.

At the end of the 2nd floor hallway, there was an area of the ceiling that had collapsed, allowing access to the room above. I paused and regarded the area with a pensive frown.

What? Davareux asked silently.

We never came up here, the first time, but we had gone over the floor plans pretty thoroughly before we showed up. It was a couple months ago, but if I remember correctly.. this room isn't actually accessible from the third floor. According to the blueprints, It shouldn't even be here.

I took a few steps forward and peered up into the room, but the angle kept me from seeing anything but ceiling. I climbed up the fallen support beams as quietly as I could, pulling myself out of the way to allow Davareaux to follow me.

The room was in similar condition to the others, but had a few additions. There was a CD player sitting on an old table, the plastic on the Play button cracked and mashed. Next to the player, there was a compact, makeup brush, and a few other beauty supplies. The brush handle was slightly bent, and the compact was cracked down the middle. The smell of perfume hung lightly in the air, the same perfume I had detected in the boiler room.

Strange.. Davareaux thought, I smelled that scent in New Orleans before too..

I picked up the compact and flipped it open. It stuck for a moment, the plastic sticking together at the seams. Once I managed to pry it apart, I saw that the makeup inside was similarly damaged. Seemed like whoever was using it had a hard time controlling their own strength. I focused my voodoo on the mirror.. but saw nothing.

Instead, I felt something. Emotions. fear, self loathing, sadness, a gut wrenching loneliness.. and a myriad of other feelings, some conflicting.

But the important part was the fact that I felt each emotion thirteen separate times.

Damn.. I didn't know she'd come back.. I put the compact back down, taking a few long breathes to steady myself..remind myself that the feelings weren't mine. I couldn't afford to get distracted.

We left the room and used the stairs to get to the rest of the third floor. I wondered where the Natalie Promethean was, if not in her room. 

In another room on the third floor, right next to the stairs, there was an old fridge, handle dented. When opened, it revealed rows of yogurt, and other healthy snacks. The place hadn't had electricity in years though, and everything in the fridge was spoiled. I grimaced and closed it softly. Seemed like she was going through the motions, being as normal as she could be.

Poor girl.

I heard something move on the second floor landing. I looked up sharply at the door and froze.

Someone is on the landing.

Davareaux didn't say a word, merely unslung his rifle and held it against his shoulder, aiming at the door. I pulled out two obscenely sharp knives. We stood that way, still as death, as quiet footsteps came up the stairs to the third floor and stopped outside the door.

"Whose there?" a rough voice said from the other side of the door.

Daraeaux exchanged a look. He inclined his head to me. He was taking my lead. I inhaled and exhaled slowly and quickly ran through my options. I didn't have many.

"People not looking for trouble." I said quietly.

The makeup compact I'd examined earlier slid under the door, mirror open. "Tell your friend to drop his gun."

Davareaux kept the rifle trained on the door. "Are you absolutely sure about this?" He murmured to me, almost inaudibly.

I put my knives back in their sheaths, and made them disappear. "No, but I don't see another option."

He only hesitated a moment before slowly lowering the weapon to the floor.

The door opened a few inches and a hand came around the door, fingernails painted pink, but poorly, like she didn't have very good fine motor control. Natalie peeked around the door, just enough that I could see only one bright green eye. She blinked in surprise. "Oh!.. It's you."

I gave her a strained half-smile and nodded. "Yeah. It's me. Sorry to disturb you. We didn't know you were back.

She pushed the door the rest of the way open and walked into the room with a plastic bag of groceries. The makeup on her face was poorly applied, and her eyes still looked a bit suspicious. Other than that, she was very attractive. It would take someone who knew what they were looking for to pick up on the imperfections.. the way she walked with a slight limp because one leg was slightly longer than the other, for example.

But that's to be expected when you're body was sewn together from the pieces of 13 different women.

 She opened the fridge and began to take things out of the bag and set them inside. It was mostly health food. I felt a pang of sympathy for her.

"When did you get back?" I asked, voice now made soft out of concern, rather than fear.

She was in the process of putting a glass bottle of Agave juice in the fridge. Her hand convulsed around it when I spoke, and the bottle shattered. She looked at it and sighed, then picked up a towel to wipe her hands. Her voice was quiet, and seemed slightly haunted, or maybe bitter. There were too many emotions there for me to tell. I didn't look at her aura. I didn't want to see visual evidence of her emotional turmoil.. turmoil that I felt at least partially responsible for.

"Traveling was hard. I tried hitchhiking. But in the end, they all wanted one thing." Her expression hardened. "I got tired of hiding the bodies." She raised her eyes to mine, as if daring me to judge her. But my face was a mask of concerned interest, and nothing more.

I just nodded. "How do you avoid the Mask?"

She went back to putting the last few items in the fridge and shut the door a bit more forcefully than necessary. But she didn't seem angry, just uncoordinated.

"When's he'd asleep, we get along just fine. When he's awake.." She smiled a bit, sadly. "Well, it's something to pass the time. The hard part was hiding him from the agents."

Mystery really solved. I was glad they hadn't found Natalie. I was also glad that she hadn't felt the need to beat the shit out of a group of heavily armed agents. Might've been fun to watch though.."How'd you do it?"

She shrugged. "Put him in the furnace... what are you doing here?"

I sighed and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand. "Looking for a friend. We think he may have come here.."

"No one was here when I left, a couples hours ago." She set some canned food up on a shelf. "Can't go into the grocery store.. but they always throw things away.." she said softly. I managed to keep my wince internal.

"Would you know if anyone had come in since then?" I doubted she had any special way to keep track of the whole building, but I'd been wrong before.

She just shrugged. "You can try the 4th floor... but I don't know what's up there."

I regarded her with a tilt of my head, a bit surprised. "You've never been?"

She shuddered very slightly. "No.. something up there.." Her eyes drifted towards the ceiling. "...scares me."

I frowned and started to reply, when Nadi spoke up on our mental radio channel.

He is heading to Cook County. We should hurry. Nadi's voice was calm, but still managed to convey urgency.

"Is it alright if others come in? Most of them are the same people from before, when you woke up. We think our friend might be upstairs.."

Natalie looked at me, her face stoic and serious. "If they come at me, I'll kill them."

I nodded. "I understand. They won't hurt you."

She nodded slowly.

Go ahead and get your asses over here. But be polite. Natalie is here, and everyone damn well better leave her be. I growled, picturing the room for them.

Why would we hurt Natalie? Gio's voice echoed in my skull about a half second before the entire group stood around the room, all of them looked a little green around the gills, but everyone managed to keep their lunch.

Giovanni looked at Natalie, who was tensed, ready to make a move if she had too.
"Oh! Hi!" Giovanni said in a quietly cheerful voice.

She seemed to relax just slightly. "Hello.."

We didn't have time for any more pleasantries if Stepping Feather might have come this way. I jerked my chin at the stairs. "Only place left to look is the 4th floor. Is everyone ready?"

Everyone murmured an affirmative. I pulled a plain white card from my pocket and held it out for Natalie. "I may not get a chance to see you again before we leave, depending on what's upstairs. If you need anything.. don't hesitate to call me."

She reached out, her fingers trembling, and took the card with forced gentleness. I could see that it was taking all her will and concentration to not destroy the card. She managed to take it from my hand while only slightly creasing the paper.

I gave her one last nod, and we turned and headed up to the 4th floor.


We stopped on the landing, just inside the door. The place was preternaturally dark. Even with my night vision, I couldn't see all the way down the hallway. My skin was trying to detach itself and crawl away.. which was probably a wiser decision than the one I made to stay.

Giovanni took a slow breath, and a glance told me that he was working his mojo. His eyes had rolled back into his head, and he seemed to enter a trance like state. He was reading the building. Suddenly, a mental picture of the floor we were on appeared in our heads. There were several rooms on either side of the hallway, then the hall opened up into a larger area at the end, with two medical bays. There were evidence of presences in each of the rooms.

10 of them.

There were also black half circles on his mental blue print. two at the end of the hall, in each medical bay, one on the far wall of a room on the right side of the hallway, one directly across from it on the far wall of a room on the left, and one directly behind us.

Those presences are ghosts. I'm not sure what those marks are, though.. and the ghosts are moving. Gio thought.

We watched as figures exited the rooms and filled the hallway. They were moving towards us, and they did not look friendly. The closest ghost watched us with hollow sockets filled with fire, instead of eyes. His limbs were grotesquely distended. It looked like he'd tried to claw his way out of something so fervently that it had destroyed his fingers. Now, past the last knuckle his fingers were nothing but bone, dripping a continual stream of blood.

And he was just the beginning of the horrors that were pouring out into the hallway. 

I closed my eyes and focused on the map, trusting the others to keep watch on our new friends. Something about those marks was eating at me.. some connection that was probably important.

Then I had it. I inhaled sharply. Look. I drew a mental line between the points. Starting with the medical bay on the right, and drawing a straight line to the mark behind us, then back down to the other medical bay, then diagonally across to the mark in the room on the right, then the room on the left, then back down to the original point.

It makes a star, Giovanni. This isn't good. What are those things?

Gio's tone held an edge to it. I already said, I don't know. But there should be one directly behind us.

Everyone turned to look but Gio and Davareaux. Gio held his trance state, and Davareaux was watching Larissa, who was, oddly,  in a similar start as Giovanni. There was nothing but a blank wall behind us.

Roxanne jumped up, easily reaching the area of wall right below the ceiling, and ripped through the plaster.

Behind it, was a piece of black glass in the shape of an oval.

My eyes went wide. No one touch it! I snapped.

Everyone glanced at me, surprised. It's a smoking mirror. I explained.

I turned back to the hallway, as did everyone else. We could see more of the ghosts Giovanni had been talking about now. They were all continuing towards us, slowly and deliberately.

I pulled out my side arm and ejected the magazine, sliding a new one home. The bullets glowed with a faint blue light.

Remind me again what a smoking mirror is? Giovanni asked in a conversational tone, like we weren't about to get munched on by the stars of Thir13en Ghosts.

I eyed the threat nervously. A mirror that shows you what you truly are. The Nahuali in Mexico are known for using them. When the New Orleans group found one on the temple top in Mexico, Jaleel touched it and it threw him into an immediate frenzy. Stone had set it up to eat the ghosts.. or absorb them.. whatever.

The mirrors aren't eating these guys. Nadi thought.

No. I said grimly. They aren't.

"What do you want?" Gio said, eyes still rolled back in his head, but he was facing in the general direction of the closest ghost, the one with the ruined fingers.

Its mouth twisted and its body shook in an unsettling manner. Its eye sockets burned with a wild insanity, its voice was rough and hoarse. "To be.. free.."

Nadi shouldered to the front and looked out over the ghosts with a small frown. She seemed completely unafraid. Which was fine, because I was plenty scared for the both of us. Ghosts might not phase her.. but these things were something out of my worst nightmares. "What is binding you here?"

Another ghost, the one directly behind the first, answered. He had on odd contraption wired into his skull. He shook spasmodically as blue currents of electricity traveled across his body. His flesh was eaten away, wounds I recognized as severe electrical burns, the flesh charred and smoking around the open gashes. "He bound us, with the mirrors!" its body convulsed and its voice went high with rage. I saw lighting crackling in the back of his throat.  "We want OUT!"

I held my gun down at my side, for now. The first ghost was getting closer, and I had no intention of letting it touch me. "Who bound you? What would you do if you got out?"

Another ghost responded. He was so tightly wrapped in a straight jacket that the movement to simply open his mouth was a violent tearing and ripping motion. The jacket had become part of him, and every movement tore at his flesh. His head twisted in an impossible manner. "Inflict the madness!" His eyes flashed and bored holes into my skull.

I met those eyes full of nothing but rage and insanity, and felt something inside my head snap. A deep, penetrating fear blossomed in the pit of my stomach, and the hallway and all the people in it suddenly felt cramped and restricting, like the walls were closing in. I looked aroud wildly for a moment before I forced it down and away, and made myself look back up at the approaching horde, but a fine tremor had begun in my hands.

Nadi's voice was much more calm and concerned than mine would've been, had I trusted myself to speak at that moment. "We can't let you out, but we can help you be at peace.."

A ghost near the back of the hallway that was covered in badly sutured incisions in places that no sane doctor would ever cut and had scalpels coming from the tips of its fingers threw back his head and let out a sound that might have been a scream, or might have been hysterical laughter."There is no peace for us! Only madness!"

He glared at her with those same eyes, and she shrunk back from him, if only slightly.

They're strong... really strong. But there is one in the far right corner that hasn't come out yet. Gio muttered.

I took aim at the closest ghost, but waited to pull the trigger. Is there any reason we should stay up here? Because running seems to be the smart thing to do right about now.

I'm already gone! Get your asses out of there! Came Nobody's response. I spared a glance over my shoulder and saw that, sure enough, the changeling was no longer on the landing with the rest of us. My vision flashed red with rage. He'd run. He'd left us there, and run away like a coward. The rage was too intense to keep to myself, and I knew that everyone on the mental channel got a good dose of it. But I hardly cared. I focused on the incoming threat instead.

Nadi looked to another ghost. "We can help you pass on from here."

"There will be no peace!" Another shrieked. it was covered in hypodermic needles. Huge syringes stabbed into its eyes and more decorated its body like gruesome spines.

As if I didn't have enough reason to never use intravenous drugs ever again..

They surged forward again, still out of physical reach, and began to twist and convulse, becoming more and more horrifying with each passing moment.

That last ghost.. its really, really angry. Nadi thought.
Dangerous? Gio asked.
Maybe moreso than the rest of them, yes.
Then I don't see a reason to stick around. I growled. I wanted to get out of there just as much as Nobody had. But I wasn't about to leave everyone else behind to do it.

"Who is the ghost still in his room?" Nadi asked.
One ghost looked like he may have been, at one time, a security guard. He held a billy club that was stained with blood and other things and his uniform was in tattered rags. Strings of rusted barbed wire dug into his arms, chest and neck, oozing blood. His face was twisted with crazed violence and cruel intentions. He twitched and let lose a peel of  laughter that sent shivers down my spine.  "New patient.. just got here.. days ago."

I doubted highly that these ghosts had any accurate sense of the passage of time. For all we knew, "a few days ago" could have been hours..or decades.

These guys aren't old enough to be this damn powerful.. this doesn't make sense. Gio said, his tone frustrated.

He was right. I didn't know much about ghosts, but it always seemed like they needed to be pretty damn old to even be worth mentioning. These guys were 60..70 years old, tops. But we could fell the power coming off of them in waves, and they had physicality manifested with ease, and remained that way.

The one time I saw the Natalie ghost manifest, she'd done so for only seconds, and had been utterly exhausted afterward.

The mirrors. The mirrors were focusing their strength.. playing double duty. They weren't just holding them up here, they were allowing them to grow in power. The star pattern was amplifying their strength. They weren't trapped up here so they couldn't hurt people.. they were trapped up here so they could grow.

So that they could hurt people more later.

It was difficult to keep from pulling the trigger and trying to blow the ghost to bits, but I managed. We need to get the hell out of here before we can't anymore. 

The ghost feels like Stepping Feather's memories felt... Nadi said, interrupted my train of thought.

"Of course it does!" I snarled, out loud. 

It didn't surprise me. We'd been having that sort of night. But I was done putting up with this bullshit.

"Fuck this!" I whirled around to face the door.

But I wasn't running. I aimed for that damned piece of black glass and pulled the trigger. The blue tracer round left the barrel and hit the mirror right in the middle. There was a muted WHUMP, like a cannon ball being shot into feather pillows, an explosion of blue light and dark glass, and the mirror fell to the ground in a million tiny pieces. "Take them out, and do it fast! They mirrors are focusing their power. Destroy them all and we might actually have a fucking prayer!"

No one questioned it. I had the most experience with the mirrors, so they took my word for it. They never stopped to question what would happen if the ghosts got out.

Probably because none of us untended to let any of them leave.

Nadi threw out her hand and energy rolled off her fingertips. I heard the sound of falling glass in the back of the hallway. Alexandria disappeared, and we heard more shattering glass in the room on the right.

"Now this is something I can actually do!" Ori said and bolted forward, dodging around the ghosts like they weren't even there. He threw open the door on the left and lept, sticks coming down hard on the mirror.

Giovanni's eyes rolled back to a normal position and he pulled out his shotgun. We traded a glance. I winked at him, and he turned away with a smirk and leveled the shotgun down the hallway.

Time to start the fucking party.

Gio lined it up where he knew the last mirror would be, and let the shot fly. I wouldn't think that a spray weapon would be that accurate at such a distance, but it not only shattered the glass on the med bay, but also the mirror high up on the wall, behind the plaster. The runes on the gun glowed a fierce red.

The darkness suddenly felt a little less oppressive.

The ghosts, however, will still just as terrifying.

They howled in equal parts fury and glee began to rush at us. We all heard that last door slam open.

Nine huge dire wolves burst out into the hallway, made entirely of shadow. I booming voice rolled over us from the back of the room.

"I'm tired.. of being bound. I'm tired.. of darkness!"

Three wolves lunged at a ghost that was sheathed in iron. Black metal bands encircled it at the ankles, knees, wrists, waist, elbows and shoulders. Bands were also screwed into place over his mouth and eyes, and what looked like iron nails were driven into its ears. He was floating, as if underwater, feet never touching the ground.

The wolves tore it to pieces.

Nobody, where the fuck are you?! Gio demanded as he took aim at a ghost so emaciated that it looked like a skeleton covered in a thin layer of skin. Its mouth gaped, larger than it had any right to be, yawning like a chasm. Its ribs broke through the skin, and its movements were a study in contradictions, agonizingly slow, but somehow urgent, yet tentative. Giovanni blew its head from its fucking shoulders.

Getting backup! He called back

He was going for the Mask. I wasn't sure how good of an idea that was, but I had none better, so instead of criticizing, I lined up my sights on the ghost who was half straight jacket, the one who had scared the ever loving bejezzus out of me, and pulled the trigger twice.

Blue tracer rounds erupted from the barrel and slammed into center mass. The crazy apparition howled, and then just fell apart. He unraveled, almost like a mummy, and disappeared. I allowed myself a satisfied smirk. It gave new meaning to the term facing down your fears.

Around us, other ghosts were falling under the teeth of the shadowy wolves.

And then we heard another howl. One from far below us.. along with the sound of screaming metal, and then the tearing of concrete and rebar.

The Mask was coming.

Ori had traded his sticks for his rifle and landed several shots in the forehead of one that was barely more than a mass of smoldering and burnt flesh, skin sloughing off as fire chewed its way across its body. The bullet holes matched the gaping eye sockets, eyeballs hanging like deflated balloons on its cheeks, presumable burst from pressure or heat. I caught a glimpse of Mr. Scalpel fingers reach for Nadi, and she fell back, eyes wide and panicked.

Then she threw out her hand and the ghost just fell to pieces in front of her.

The others were busy as well, but that was all I had time to take in before the floor in the middle of the hallway buckled and split open. The beastly arms of the Mask reached up and hauled its huge ass through the hole. It immediately began grabbing for the remaining ghosts, tearing chucks of the specters off with his teeth.

He was eating them.

"He's binding them to himself.." Nadi said quietly as she climbed to her feet.

A familiar figure stepped out of the room on the far side of the hallway, the Mask between us and him. He was dressed in thrift store rags, and his face was set in a grim expression. The wolves fanned out in front of him, snarling and snapping at the Mask as the monster finished its meal.

He was going to stand and fight.

"Nadi! The journal!" Alexandria yelled. Nadi produced the slim volume from her pocket and the two of them started reading quickly, voices rolling over the words, speaking in a language that made my head throb.

Stepping Feather tensed, and sprung forward, charging the new enemy.

The words reached his ears half way down the hallway. I watched as his expression and his aura shifted. He twisted his body mid-leap and turned it into an artful dive, sliding between the massive creatures legs. He came to his feet on the other side in one smooth motion and ran right for us. "For fucks sake! RUN!"

None of us needed to be told twice. We turned and ran for the stairs. Giovanni jumped down the damn hole that the Mask had made, and met us on the first floor. Nobody and Natalie appeared from a small alcove in the wall they'd used to avoid getting in the monster's way. Natalie gave us a brief nod, cracked her knuckles, and started striding purposefully towards the stairs to face down the Mask.

We didn't stop running until we were clear of the fence.  We heard a loud roar, and the sound of concrete shattering.

Stepping Feather skidded to a stop and looked at Alexandria. "Soo.. are you still mad at me?"
Her eyebrows went up and she blinked at him. "A little.. but this really isn't the time for that, don't you think?"
Stepping Feather nodded vigorously. "Yeah. Good. Mind getting us out of here?"

She smiled fiercely, and a moment later, we all stood inside Giovanni's shop, trying not to vomit all over his floors.


Daraveaux was carrying Larissa, limp in his arms. She had stopped shaking, and was now completely unconscious.

"How is she?" Nobody asked in a low voice.
"She'll be fine.. she does this sometimes." Davareaux answered, just as softly. But the lines around his eyes stood out more than usual, and his expression was tight with worry. He went into one of the bedrooms and closed the door behind him.

We stood around the lab..more accurately, we stood around Stepping Feather. Everyone but Roxanne, who made a beeline for the kitchen and start taking out enough food and beer for a small Army.

 I half-sat on one of the work tables, a small satisfied smile on my face. "How're you feeling?"
Stepping Feather looked thoughtful. "It's weird.. it's like.. I died.. and was buried alive. Then, I had to dig my way out, and ran all over the city, got trapped in some creepy as shit asylum, then had memories forcibly shoved back into my head.."
I grinned at him. I couldn't help it. "How did you get stuck up there anyway?"
He gave an easy shrug. "I was tracking scents, you guys.. I went up there, and then I couldn't leave. Simple as that."
Giovanni settled himself on a stool and leaned his elbows on the table. "Well you are half dead. Makes sense."
Stepping Feather's expression twisted into comical consternation. "I gotta go through all that again?"
Gio chuckled. "You were dead. Leaves a mark." He inclined his head ever so slightly in the direction of Larissa's room.

Roxanne returned with mounds of food and made sure that Stepping Feather ate. I'd never seen her in mother mode before. I did have to admit, it was a more characteristic response to Stepping Feather's return than seeing her break down in tears would have been. Any time anyone got close to him, her muscles tensed. She never actually made anyone move away, but the protectiveness was definitely evident.

Ori had a goofy ass grin plastered over his face. Not that I could blame him.

"Hey Uncle John."
Stepping Feather's eyes widened like he'd just seen Ori for the first time. In his defense, we'd been pretty preoccupied before. "Well holy shit! When'd you get so fucking tall?!" He pulled Ori into a bear hug. Ori laughed and hugged back, thumping his back.

Stepping Feather pulled away and looked closely at Ori's face. "Damn..its like looking in a mirror.. a taller,  uglier mirror.."
I choked back a laugh.
Stepping Feather took a long pull from a beer. "So what the hell? Last I knew you were doing shit in Las Vegas. Now you're running with these guys?"
Ori blinked at him, a bit confused. "You..uh..sent me.."
Stepping Feather blinked right back. "Was it.. like a vision? or a dream..?"
Ori nodded and grabbed a beer for himself. "A dream I think.. not sure, I was smoking some pretty wild stuff."

"Then Giuseppe threatened him if he didn't help us." Nobody chimed in.
"Yeah, that's kind what he does...." Stepping Feather paused and looked at Nobody with a grimace. "I threw you down a flight of stairs.."
Nobody smirked. "Yup."
Stepping Feather rubbed the back of his neck and took another drink of his beer. "Yeah..uh..sorry about that.. it was a weird time for me.. I was in a bad place.."
Nobody shook his head. I got the idea he as smiling, but with no face, its hard to tell. "No worries."

Ori disappeared for a moment and came back with a box of clothes. He handed it to Stepping Feather. "Here, you look like a bum."
Stepping Feather grinned. "A handsome bum."
He proceeded to to strip out of the old thrift store clothes.. he hadn't stolen underwear. He changed right there in front of god and everyone.

And I figured, if he wasn't embarrassed about changing clothes in front of all of us, I had no reason to be embarrassed about watching him do it.

"So, what have I missed?" He asked, looking around the room at everyone.
"I killed Citysmith." Ori said smugly.
All of our heads swiveled in his direction at once. I arched a brow at him. Gio smirked widely, Nobody shook his head, and Nadi and Becca both just stared.
"All by yourself, eh Ori? You are a pillar of humility." My sarcasm fell in puddles on the floor.

Stepping Feather stared too, for that matter, mouth agape for a moment. "...Why?"
"Bale hound." Ori said simply.
His mouth snapped shut. "No shit.. man.. you think you know someone.." Stepping Feather said, shaking his head.

We spent awhile filling him in on what he'd missed out on. The serial killer, our banishment to Maury's place, Maxwell's death.. we spent a lot more time on Pain of Animals, and the fight with Citysmith. Anything we could think of. And we talked about nothing. It felt good to be able to talk to him again. It felt good to know that I'd been able to help him.

"So what about New Orleans?" He asked finally, looking at Roxanne.
"I'll fill you in when we get home."
"And when is that?"
She shrugged. "I can get tickets for tomorrow."
"Or I can take you there now." Alexandria said. She'd been so quiet I'd mostly forgotten she was there.
"Well what does Davareaux think?" He asked innocently.

A brief, but uncomfortable silence fell in the room
"We'll talk about it when we get home." Roxanne said in a flat voice.

"Oh.. yeah.. you see.. during the Pain of Animals fight..." Ori began.
 "Shut. Up. Ori." I glared daggers at him.
"She said she'd tell him when they got home, you idiot." Nobody said, his voice tinged with a sneer.
Ori held up his hands. "Oookay. Shutting up now." He gave Stepping Feather a helpless look. Stepping Feather just offered a small shrug.

Davareaux reappeared then. "She's awake. She wants to see you."
Stepping Feather nodded and disappeared into the bedroom without another word. I heard crying a few moments later, but made a point not to listen in anymore than that.

I do respect peoples boundaries occasionally, believe it or not.

Gio sidled up next to me. "Ever heard of voodoo that makes beetles crawl out of a mans throat?"
"Beetles? Sounds familiar.. but I couldn't tell you where I've heard of it. I can try to find out though."
He nodded and went back to a low table in the corner. "Good.. because they were crawling out of one of the guards throats at the tower.."

I fell still as death and stared at him, surprised, and more than a little suspicious. He ignored me. The ass. I shook myself, brushing it off for now,  and took out my cell and sent a quick message to Giuseppe.


To: G

Stepping Feather is safe and sound. On an unrelated note..Do you know what kind of voodoo would make beetles crawl out of a mans throat?


I only had to wait a moment for the response.

From: G

Lanceaum Sanctum. Not Birch's bag.

I'm proud of you.


I smiled. I'd be damn if I ever admitted to anyone how satisfying that little phrase was, coming from him.. but I'd be lying to myself if I said I didn't like reading it.

And I was never one for overly emotional displays of affection.



Doing what I can. I'll keep you updated. Have fun in NOLA.


I snapped the phone shut and put it away.

Everyone had split off to do their own thing. Giovanni sat in the far corner of the lab, watching me. He knew me well enough to know when I'd want to have a conversation. Everyone else was either in another room, or involved with their own shit.

The warm fuzzies were retreating... replaced with the knowledge that we still had a lot of work to do..I felt my expression twist into something grim. There were still important issues to take care of.

Like the possibility that one of our own might one day leave us up shit creek with no paddles and a hole in the boat.

I walked towards Giovanni. It was important to appreciate the small victories.. and I thought getting Stepping Feather back a rather large one, all things considered. There was a part of me that felt satisfied and sated for the moment. Giuseppe's text had helped with that.

But I didn't have time to bask in the glow. There was still too much to do.. and no rest for the wicked.

I pulled out a stool and sat across from Giovanni. He and I had a lot to discuss.