January 27, 2010

Heart to Heart with Solomon Birch

I didn't have long to contemplate before Nadi knocked on my door. She was going to take the black book to Father Nico, and wanted to know if I was interested in going as well. I took advantage of the offer, as did most of the others.

30 minutes later were were all sitting in the same room as before, Father Nico looking just as human as ever. He was even drinking coffee. Really drinking, not just sipping. And really enjoying it, judging by his aura. I had a brief flash of intense envy.

After pleasantries, Nadi handed him the book, wrapped in a heavy cloth (the thing was still uncomfortable to touch).
"This is the book you were talking about?" Father Nico asked as he gingerly unwrapped the parcel.
"Yes. I found it in a weird extra-dimensional library under my friend's name, 'Ray Fawkes'."
Nico didn't even bat an eyelash at the absurdity of that statement, true as it was. He just continued to examine the book before responding, "It is a prison."
"Yeah, but for who?" Gio asked.
Nico refolded the cloth and set the book down softly on the coffee table. "It will take me a few days to figure this puzzle out. I'll let you know when I have something."
"I may be out of cell range for a few days..." Nadi protested.
"I'll make sure the information gets to you." I told her. She nodded her thanks. Nico gestured to the books around him. "You are more than welcome to chose a book to remove from the library if you would like. Which would you prefer?" He got up and began skimming titles.
Nadi looked as close to a kid at Christmas as I'd ever seen her. "All of them."
Nico smiled and pulled a large, leather bound tome from the shelves. He set it down in front of her almost reverently. The thing was ancient. I didn't get a good look at the title, but he told her he thought it was interest her greatly. He provided Nadi with an oil skin to transport it in.

Giovanni pointed to a much small book high on a shelf. "What is that book?"
Nico followed his gaze to the odd looking manuscript. "That has not been opened for a long time."
"Does it scream at you too?" Gio asked. I didn't hear a damn thing, personally.
"Not in the way you are thinking." Nico said. Obviously he knew what Gio meant. That made one of us.
"May I read it?" Gio asked, but Nico shook his head. "I'm afraid the book is too dangerous to open here." "What can I do to get that book from you?" Gio asked in his best bargaining voice.
Nico gave him an apologetic smile. "Nothing. I'm afraid there are things in that book that I wouldn't want the Lucifuge to know."
Gio shrugged, but he couldn't quite stop looking up at the book the rest of the time we were there. I idly wondered if Nico meant the Lucifuge herself, or the group as a whole...

"Is there anything else I can do for any of you?"
"I'd like to meet with you to talk more on what we discussed last time I was here. When would be a convenient time for you?" I asked. Father Nico had already been so helpful, that I couldn't be anything less than polite to him. I'm not a bitch to everyone.. just to people I feel like deserve it.
"Convenience isn't really an issue. I'm always here." Like I said.. helpful.
"I got a call from the Prince tonight..."
"So I heard. Congratulations."
I blinked, mildly surprised, but continued. "Thanks.. but that's what I want to ask you about. Why do you think the Prince would rescind the kill on sight order?" I tried to keep my expression neutral, or at least show only detached curiosity. It was harder than I thought it would be. I was usually pretty damn composed.. only showing what I wanted people to see.. but this.. this thing got under my skin in all the wrong ways. It made it difficult to school my expression or body language.
Nico returned to his seat. "Well, it could be a trap, but that's unlikely. There are many other easier ways to flush you out if he wanted too. More than likely, someone the Prince owed a large favor to has been speaking on your behalf."

"hmm." I considered that possibility quietly. It was certainly food for thought. Who would have gone up against the Prince for me? And used up a massive favor to do so...I had a few suspects... but it was still only a theory. I needed to call Norris. He would know. Whether or not he'd tell me was iffy, but he'd at least give me something to go on. And seeing as he was the primary suspect on my list of champions, the call would serve double duty. I fervently hoped that it had been Norris, and not Birch. It wouldn't surprise me if he had done it for some twisted reason.. the thought of owing anything to Birch made my skin crawl.

All these thoughts ran rampant in my head while the others continued talking to Father Nico. I clued back into the conversation long enough to realize that Nobody had asked Nico for book on the Gentry, and since he had none, Nico was telling him stories that he knew concerning the Fae.

Eventually I left. Faery tales weren't all that pertinent to me at the moment and regardless, I had other things on my mind. I couldn't focus on stories. As I departed, Father Nico walked us to the door.
His parting comment was disconcerting. "Good luck with Solomon Birch, Harper."
How does everyone seem to know fucking everything that I do? It's downright obnoxious. But I just thanked him and left.
I headed back to the sewers. Gio and Ori went to the shop, I think to survey the damage left by Bright and the Foundation. I put in my call to Norris when I was safely underground again.

"Evening, Norris." I managed not to let my voice betray my nervousness. I was always nervous when talking to Norris. It was like walking on extremely sharp eggshells. "Miss O'Shea."
"How are you tonight?" Two people I felt the need to be polite to in one night. It was probably some sort of personal record.
"Fine. Congratulations, by the way." He said.
I paused. That almost confirmed to me that it wasn't a trap. I doubted the Price would have actually made it widely known that he'd rescinded the order if it was. "Thank you, that's what I'm calling about, actually. What would cause the prince to lift the order?" I was seriously hoping to get a straight answer, and for once, I actually got one. I think that might have been another record. A straight answer from Norris. Damn.
"You are a hero to this city and a valued member of my covenant. You should not be hidden away." He said simply.

The nervousness, dread, and anger I'd felt since receiving Maxwell's call dissolved instantly. In fact, more of it than I even thought I'd had.. it was nice to be rid of that huge burden. "I am indebted to any of those who were involved in my..acquittal, if you will."
"I hold you to no debt." Norris said without hesitation.
The answer surprised me, but I didn't let it color my response. "Thank you."
And he hung up.

I actually sighed in relief. Norris had gone to bat for me, and won. Not only that, hadn't asked for anything in return. It occurred to me that he might every well have done so as payment for one of his own debts, but I didn't really care either way. I didn't have to stay hidden in a fucking sewer anymore. As nice as Maury had been, and as comfortable his haven was, it was still a sewer, and I'd be glad to leave it behind me. Now the question is.. how will everyone react to me returning? I had no idea if Maxwell had told many people about the Malkavia. It would probably be smart to stay under the radar for awhile. I wouldn't be surprised if a few kindred out there had yet, conveniently, to hear that the order had been rescinded.

But it was worth the risk. I just had no idea where I'd go. That thought sobered me up a bit. The shop was still under lock down. Or so I thought. It was about then that Giovanni and Grigori got back with unexpected news. I walked into the lab and they were both packing shit up.

"What's going on?"
"Bright's giving me my shop back. They're done with it. We can go back...unless you really enjoy the sewer rats." Gio said with a smirk. I responded with a derisive smile, and the finger.
"You really think it will be safe there?" I was skeptical.
He just shrugged. "I don't see why not. They have no need of the place itself, they just wanted what was in it. They have that now. But if you really want, you're more than welcome to stay in the sewers." I made a face. "I didn't think so. Lets go see Maury." And Gio headed off in that direction.

Both he and I went to talk to Maury.
We explained the situation to him. he didn't seem at all surprised by any of it. "We really appreciate your hospitality. We are going to get out of your hair now." Gio said. Maury looked down the hallway at my bedroom door, cracked epoxy still adhered to the frame. "As you will."
Gio grimaced. "Uh, sorry about that... well.. not really.." I just rolled my eyes and we both thanked him. It seemed minuscule compared to what he'd done for us. He accepted our thanks, then looked me square in the eye (I was still practicing looking at someone without making eye contact. I'd seen what some kindred could do with eye contact..) and said, "Please tell Norris, the next you see him, that he and I are now square. This has absolved my debt to him."
I nodded once, and left to start moving. It was interesting, I had thought Maury's debt had been to Traveler, not to Norris. This is what I get for making assumptions.

We started moving. The collector helped us, even brought along his posse. Ori seemed a little weirded out by the whole thing. It didn't take very long, we finished that night. I didn't have much in the way of possessions. Mostly just clothing. In fact, none of us were really bogged down with much. The most difficult part was transporting the lab itself. In passing I wondered what Maury was going to do about the sword that was stuck in the wall of the internet room.

That question was soon answered.

I set down the stack of boxes I'd been carrying, ignoring Gio's 800th warning not to break anything and leaned back against the door frame, crossing my arms. "Is that everything?"
Gio's gaze went past me, over my shoulder and into the other room. "Now it is."
I pushed off the frame and turned around.. to see the Collector slowly lowering a giant chunk of cement with a sword hilt protruding from one side to the floor. He was substantially bulkier, and the new muscle mass rippled with effort.
Giovanni gave a small laugh ."Impressive."
The Collector turned his eyeless face to us and gave a deep bow... then utterly vanished.

I really need to learn how to do that.

Ori gave a theatrical shudder. "That is the ugliest ninja ever."
I looked at him quizzically. "You do realize he's probably still here right?"
"Oh uh...shit." Ori started looking around the room frantically.
I just shook my head and went downstairs to my room, relieving Giovanni of one of his numerous burn phones. I had another call to make.
"If you're going to call Valkyrie, isn't the burn phone a bit pointless? Don't they have a chip in your phone anyway?"
"It's not to keep me safe from them. It's to keep them safe from him." I called back over my shoulder as I left.
I didn't want a repeat of what happened with Denzelo, so I was going to take precautions.

I dialed the Captain once I was in my old (new?) room.
"What do you have for me O'Shea?" That's how he answered the phone. Pleasantries be damned. As though I gave a shit.  I tried not to let the reminder of my current 'mission' get under my skin.
"Our serial killer may be resurfacing."
There was a long pause before he said anything. "How do you know?"
"I don't for sure, but I came across photos of someone matching a few of his qualities talking with Citysmith." Name drop.. maybe get him off my back a bit.
"This is extremely annoying." If breathing were still required of me, I'd have snorted in disgust, on reflex. As it was, I managed not too. Annoying for HIM? I think I won out on 'inconvenience factor' on this one. But I kept that thought to myself.
"Yeah. Just thought you guys should have a heads up.. how is Denzelo anyway?"
He sighed. "Doing better, it seems.. but whatever happened.. well it fucked him up pretty good. Do you have anything else to report?"
"Nothing, but not for a lack of trying." Which was true. Damn Birch and his computer skills.
"Let us know when you have more." And he hung up on me. Ass.

I tossed the cell on the naked mattress and sat down next to it. I briefly considered how long I could keep Valkyrie off my back, how much information I'd have to feed them. This game wasn't fun, and I was already getting tired of it. I wondered what they'd do if I went 'rogue', dug that chip out of my shoulder and gave them the finger. They'd probably send another team after me, like they had before. But I was stronger now. Hell, I'd drank from a fucking GOD. But still, it was nothing to take lightly. But I'd cross that bridge when I came to it.

In the midst of these thoughts, something on the desk caught my eye. A book, one that I knew I never put there. I went over to the desk to puzzle over it. It was laying face down in the middle of the desk. It was thin, no more than 100 pages, and about the size of a journal. It was leather bound and the pages were made of old parchment, rather than modern paper. The entire thing screamed of age. I gingerly opened the back cover to reveal pages covered with hand written script, penned very precisely in dark ink, the script flowing and perfectly spaced. I held it carefully and turned it over, revealing a version of the Ordo Dracul insignia embossed on the front cover. The symbol seemed slightly off though, which made sense if the book was as old as it looked. Times changing and all that. The title was embossed across the top, above the insignia. "Rites of the Dragon."

I nearly dropped it.

As it was, I stared at it uncomprehending. I'd heard of this book. It was supposedly the memoirs of Dracula himself, following him from his death till torpor, and laying out all the founding guidelines for the Ordo Dracul. It was also, supposedly, extremely rare. This was not a book that just any member of the Order had access too. Hell, I was pretty certain that even high ranking members would have a hard time getting their hands on a copy. And I was holding one in my hands.

I didn't know who'd left it, more than likely it was Giuseppe, but it may have also been the gift that Rashida had promised.. but either way I didn't care. I had it, and that was the most important thing. I was holding the sum of the Ordo Dracul philosophy in my hands. The thoughts and events that led directly to the creation and development of the Coils, and the Order itself. The words of the Kindred who had discovered how to permanently change the vampiric condition, save it from a static existence. I would know what he'd been thinking. How he did it. It was my turn to feel like a kid at Christmas. Once I got passed the utter shock, giddy excitement, and intense amazement, I sat and carefully opened the book.

Once I began to read, I quickly realized the vast potential this book had to change my entire outlook.


December 8th, 2009

I didn't sleep all day. I forced myself to stay up so that I could read the manuscript over and over again. I read it through once, devouring every word. Then I read it again, just to be sure I didn't miss anything. I read it a third time and took notes as I did. When I left my room that night, I was on my fourth time through, and the implications were just starting to set it.

Nobody and Ori were in the kitchen, Becca was watching TV, and Nadi was no where to be seen. Gio was working in his lab when I walked in with my nose buried in the text.

"Wakey wakey oven bakey." He grinned at me.
I looked at him from over the top of the book and frowned. "What are you, German?" His response was to go back to his tinkering. "Kinda, yeah."
I gave a snort and settled onto a stool on the far side of the lab. The room began to dim until the work lamp over Giovanni's workbench was much too faint to work by. The place was nearly black, cloaked in heavy shadows. This did not, however, get the reaction I was hoping for. Gio simply reached over and grabbed a pair of goggles from a cabinet (the ones I'd given him from Valkyrie, though they looked modified) and put them on without a word and kept working. I frowned and just went back to reading, keeping the inky darkness intact just out of spite. It wasn't like I needed the light to read.

Well damn. That was immensely unsatisfying. Thankfully, I live with more than one idiot. I didn't have to wait long before I heard Grigori walk into the room and slam right into the edge of one of the unoccupied work tables. "Ooof! FUCK!"
Now that.. was much more satisfying. Ori gestured blindly in my general direction. "Hey, can you cut that out?" The irritation and discomfort in his voice made up for the lack of reaction from Gio.
"No." He couldn't see me smirk.
"But it's not bugging him!" He huffed, pointing towards the very faint pinpoints of light generated by Gio's goggles.
"That's okay. You're just as annoying." I was careful to keep all hints of humor and amusement out of my voice. I had a reputation to maintain, after all.

I turned back to my book as he grumbled and cursed and tried, unsuccessfully, to navigate out of the room without running into any more furniture.

Both Giovanni and I looked up sharply when someone knocked on the door of the shop. We shared a curious look, and both stood to investigate. I hid the book away.
I allowed the shadows to dissolve when I recognized Deuce Carter's visage. It was a premature move, but it wasn't as though they would've helped anyway. When Ori opened the door, I knew something was very wrong. His face was slack, and his arms hung limply at his sides. Before I could examine his aura, I caught sight of why.

The tip of a wooden stake was protruding from his chest about 2 inches. Before anyone could react, the person holding the other end of the stake threw him into and across the room.

Solomon Birch stood on the shop's doorstep.

In an instant, we were all ready for a fight, tension palpatable in the air.
"I would appreciate it if you'd invite me in." Birch's tone was about a thousand degrees south of friendly, and condescending as fuck.
Ori crossed his arms over his chest. "I ain't doing it. "
Giovanni looked at him through slitted eyes. His hand wasn't on the shotgun, but it was tensed, ready. "You staked my friend." Gio's tone managed to be colder.
Birch all but rolled his eyes. "Yes, and if you don't invite me in so we can settle this civilly, I'll do it to another friend, then another.."
I cut him off. "Invite him in, Giovanni." I inwardly cursed myself. I figured Birch would come directly for me, not involve others. In hindsight, that was monumentally stupid to assume.
Gio gestured for him to enter, but it was a stiff and curt movement. Birch stepped inside and shut the door behind him.

I heard Nobody yank the stake from Deuce's back. Deuce's eyes flew open, darting around the room like a caged animal. He rolled to his feet quick as lightning and snarled at Birch, tensing to charge.
Birch just sneered at him. "Do you want to do this again?"
Deuce bared his fangs, but didn't lunge. The glare he gave Birch was downright baleful.
Birch grinned maliciously at Deuce and turned back to look at the rest of us."One of you hacked into my computer system. I want to know which one."
Gio and Nobody turned to look at me, Ori started to speak, but I cut him off by simply giving Birch a two fingered wave. I couldn't blame the others, I'd brought this upon myself. Besides, I knew if Birch attacked me here, they'd throw in, regardless.

"Ah, good. That means we can keep this strictly a vampire matter, and we don't have to involve the other freaks." Freaks was said with intense derision, like he didn't want them to doubt for a second that he felt them beneath him.
He looked at me, face twisted up in self righteous rage. "Care to take a walk with me?"
I kept my expression bland and started mentally going through all the possible outcomes of this little adventure. Most of them weren't pleasant for me. "Do I have a choice?"
He looked at me with a grin that was more like like a baring of fangs. "Not even in the slightest." He opened the door and held it for me, gesturing me out in front of him. I was struck then that he was pulling dirty tricks galore. I realized then that he'd had us all duped. We couldn't have attacked him even if we wanted too. We'd all been rapt by him in one way or another. He'd been terrifying.. but I realized it was all tricks. I fought through it, but I didn't attack him. I kinda like existing.

He walked beside me on the sidewalk and I did my best not to display my nervousness. I watched his every movement, waiting for him to attack now that he had me alone. We walked about a block in silence before he said anything.
"So. What exactly motivated you to violate my privacy?"
I hesitated. If I told him the truth, he may kill me right there.. but if I lied, the possibly consequences were worse. I only paused for a few seconds before making up my mind. "Are you familiar with Project Valkyrie?"
He sneered and his voice was chalk full of scorn. "TASKFORCE Valkyrie. It is a Taskforce. So what is your TASK Valkyrie agent?" He said it like an insult.. and it sure as hell felt like one. Could be that I'm just sensitive about the issue.

But, there was no use in abashing myself in front of him for my affiliations, as distasteful as they may be. "I have the misfortune of owing them a number of favors. They called in a few."
"And what were these favors?"
I shrugged at the obvious answer. "To keep tabs on you." Which was mostly true. No need to mention anyone else.
He nodded, expression shifting to something slightly more pensive (yet still retaining that air of self righteous contempt) "I can work with that." He stopped walking.

Which was not the answer I was expecting. I also stopped and watched him with narrowed eyes. I was about to speak when a black town car pulled up.
"Get in." It wasn't a suggestion.

I got in. The interior was impressive and not at all what I expected. It was fancy as shit, but not just because of the leather and the trim. It was decked out in all the latest electronics. No wonder I got fucked over. He was a technology junkie. As we started to pull away, he produced a laptop from a panel and began typing. Before long, he had ejected a thumb drive and held it out to me.

"This is what you will give them. No more, no less. This is all the information you were able to get from my system. Now, if questioned, you will make the proper noise on just how very difficult it was to get this information. How I almost caught you several times. How it was backed up behind firewalls and proxys.." I pursed my lips at the implied insult and cut him off. "I know how to sell it."
His mouth twitched in the beginnings of a sneer. "Good. Now, you have already shown that you are willing to give up one of your own if pressed by a government agency... what I want to know, is why?"

Self righteous son of a bitch. I invade his privacy and all of the sudden I'm the government's pet? As though I'd betray whoever they asked me to. As though what I had done was even a betrayal at all. Doesn't there have to be some existing trust to break for it to even qualify? I spoke through gritted teeth. "I wasn't turning on my own. You assume I was going to give them everything I found. I as trying to get them enough information to keep them off my back, not put you at risk." Mostly true.. though I really could give two shits whether or not he was in danger.

"You mean to keep them off MY back." His eyes were all anger and violence. "Instead of getting in touch with me and informing me of this situation, you chose to be RUDE, and attempt to access my information without my knowledge. Why did you choose to be so rude?" Funny, last night I was dealing with all sorts of people I felt the need to be extremely polite too. Tonight I was dealing with someone that I went out of my way to be a bitch too.. and he's the only one insisting on politeness.
"Up until last night I couldn't exactly call anyone I wanted to up to chat without..certain consequences."
"Oh really? Couldn't meet with people?" He clicked the mouse a few times and spin the laptop around to face me. There were images of me with my dyed hair and baseball cap all around the city. "You're going to try and tell me you didn't contact anyone at all?"
I just gave him an annoyed frown. "I never said that. But I had no reason to believe that you'd do anything but serve my head up on a silver platter." Which was perfectly true. I was much more inclined to believe he'd take the KOS order to heart and relish being allowed to off me.
"Ah, you see, now we get to the REAL issue." He said cryptically.

The car slowed and pulled up to the curb. We were sitting in front of a nightclub. A BDSM nightclub. "You don't like me."
"You don't like ME." I countered.
He shrugged. "Its not really a requirement. Why is it you aren't fond of me?" Really? He wanted to know why? Oh let me count the ways. He slid out of the car, came around, and waited for me to exit myself. I answered him as I climbed out.

"Because every time I have interacted with you you've treated me like a lesser being.. and I don't appreciate it." I paused for a heartbeat, then added, "And because you're an asshole."
"Well.. you ARE a lesser being."
"Case and point." I said dryly.
We walked quickly through the club, which was dark with pulsing music and lots of leather and chains. I started to wonder just what activities Birch has engaged in to get all those scars.. he paused only briefly to gesture to two scantily dressed patrons on the way up to the VIP area. The two humans followed him like hungry dogs.

The room that we ended up in was mostly barren. There were tools on the walls that I didn't even want to guess at their purpose, and the floor had a drain in it. That was never a good sign. There were two chairs in the middle of the room, across from each other. He took one, so I took the other.

"So you don't like me because I'm..a racist, because I look down on you." he said it as an observation, leaning back in his chair, relaxing into it. I couldn't relax right now if my existence depended on it...
"Tell me. What was your last meal when you were still alive?"
I blinked at the abrupt shift."Carne asada and tequila." One doesn't tend to forget their last meal before Death.
"Ahh.. Carne Asada." He gave a disparaging laugh that ended in a sneer. "And did you ask the color of the cow?"
"You're Pathetic. Someone who tries to pretend that she is just like the little humans, only slightly different. You deny what you are and try to pretend humans are more than just cattle." He snapped his fingers and the two clubbers, who had looks of eager anticipation, knelt down on either side of him and he lounged against them as though they were furniture, using them as rests for his arms and feet. I couldn't keep the disgust off my face.
"And every time you look at me with that disgusted little sneer.. yes.. just like that.. you show just how weak you really are. You are correct, I do think you are a lesser being. You have yet to overcome certain difficulties of your condition.. and that makes you WEAK."
"Oh? Such as?" I said, with more than a little sarcasm.
"This.." he waved his hand in the air, searching for the word."..relation you still attempt to maintain with mortals. Pretending they are equal to you. But they aren't. You are a predator. You were made to hunt them." He truly believed that, I could see it in his body language, hear it in his voice.. hell, I could read it in his aura.
"And no matter how many DEER you eat, it will never be the same as preying on those you were MADE to prey upon. You are crippling yourself." His hand sliced the air as though into an invisible victims legs. "Its those like you that have made this popular lately.. this..vegetarianism." He curled his lip in contempt and disgust. It radiated off of him in waves. His aura was saturated with it. "It's pathetic. You attacked and fed off of a GOD. I am at least required to give you token respect for that..now you hide away and feed off of VERMIN? You have taken power and chose not to use it. To let it wither away into nothing. You are ineffective. You are a wolf that has chosen to make it's home among sheep, to suckle at the ewe's teat until all your fangs have fallen out." Obviously, he didn't think much of me. But he wasn't done yet.

He leaned forward in his chair, his voice mocking. "So tell me Mehket, do you SPARKLE in the sunlight?"

Blood red RAGE surged through my body. It was by sheer force of will that I kept the Beast locked in its cage. It howled and screeched and filled my head with graphic visions of ripping that superior smirk off Birch's face and wallowing in his entrails. I forced the sights away, as entertaining as they were. Bitter as that insult had been, I'd managed to keep my reaction internalized. Inwardly, I fought the rage and beast down. Outwardly, I casually folded my arms across my chest and gave him a sardonic smile.
"Blood is blood. Humans may as well be animals for the purposes of feeding. They serve me the same as wildlife. The difference is humans can be vastly more useful to me. I would rather not risk killing a something that could be a useful tool."

He cocked an eyebrow at me. "You don't feed on humans because you don't want to risk killing someone who may be useful to you?" He looked genuinely surprised, and no less condescending. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard, and I've heard some pretty stupid things in my time." I just frowned at him.
He lifted his arm from where it was resting on the back of the young black girl. She stood and walked over to me, then returned to her knees. She lifted her chin and bared her throat. Her eyes, her face, her body.. they all screamed desperation. The desparate desire of an addict. I did my best to ignore the throbbing pulse in her neck and focus on Birch.

"They're addicts, Harper. They BEG for us to feed on them. It is what we were made to do. You throw away all the potential you have so you can avoid killing them? Pathetic. Your brethren feed off them nightly without killing them. You will never achieve anything without taking risks. No one ever got anywhere by being SQUEAMISH."
I scowled at him. "Why do you assume that I'm not willing to kill if its necessary?"
Solomon made a flick of the fingers to illustrate the lack of importance the question bore. "Conjecture." But he 'knew' he was right. I could see it written all over his face. He was downright convinced he was 100% right about me. And what stung my pride the most, was that amidst the insults and the degradation.. he actually was making a small amount of sense.

And apparently he saw something in me that showed him I had thought as much, because he smirked and leaned back in his chair again, all self satisfied. "You see, your problem is that you're a coward. You aren't willing to take risks to get what you want. You hide behind your moral outrage and your mask of spurious practicality, when really, you're just a scared little peon who isn't willing to take the RISKS to achieve anything worth mentioning. Pitiful."

Not willing to take risks? Hell, I hacked his fucking computer didn't I? This guy ate at my last nerve. The biggest problem was, there was a small part of me that was terrified he might be right. A nagging, tiny voice that said that my vow to do what was necessary was just a way to thinly veil my fears of the beast. Because all in all, hunting animals was far from practical or necessary. But I ignored it. Shoved it away and scowled at Birch. I wouldn't give in to inner conflicts in front of this pompous, self righteous, ingratiating son of a bitch.

"How does my choice of diet make me weak exactly?"
He gave me a look that said I should already know the answer to that question. A look that said I was continuing to prove to him how lowly a creature I was. "You are higher on the food chain then they are. Wolves, bears, lions.. they are predators, like we are predators. They don't hunt MICE."

I just stared at him. "Why do you care?"

"You were created to be a predator, and to be anything less to to deny yourself , to become weak, stunted, and pathetic... which apparently, you prefer. However, buried under all your deplorable cowardice, there is occasionally evidence of vast...potential. But instead of utilize it, you piss it away. You are not acting to that potential, and I find that.. disgusting."
Briefly, an emotion flashed across his features.. one I thought I had seen before. I dug back into my memories, and what I found surprised me. I recalled hearing a snipet of conversation one night at court, conversation concerning Giuseppe, though the speaker didn't actually refer to him by name. I remember the look on Birch's face.. because it sat oddly on his features. It was a flash of pure admiration. That was what this was about. He thought I wasn't living up to my..."parentage". Thats the reason he was taking interest in me. Because of Giuseppe.

Well Holy Fuck.

He narrowed his eyes at me, and the girl on her knees in front of me let out a small desperate whimper.

"Food for thought." He tilted his chin and looked down his nose at me. "Now get out."
So I left. The door shut behind me as I saw Birch rise and stalk towards the girl, still on her knees on the cold floor.

I walked in the direction of  the shop. I took the time to cool down, and to get my head on straight. He was an infuriating asshole, but a few of the things he said kept ringing in my head. I don't think it would have made a damn bit of difference if I hadn't been reading the Rites of the Dragon before he paid me that little visit.

I had a lot to consider. And I think I hated Birch the most for that.

No.. no.. the fact that he was raging cunt still made the top of the list of reasons to hate Solomon Birch in the end...

January 21, 2010

Meeting with Giuseppe

We all headed back to Maury's, feeling at least somewhat accomplished. We didn't know much about spirits, but at least we'd been able to help. I was mulling over just how long Giuseppe had been lurking in my shadow. Well, at least updating him on what had been going on would be short and sweet. He'd seen most of it.It explained why I'd felt stalked every time I'd gone out to feed. It also meant he'd probably heard the lesson on Cruac from Rowan.. sneaky bastard. I couldn't help the smirk plastered across my face the whole way back.

When we got back, he was talking in hushed tones with Maury about something. I half expected him to disappear again once he left the meat packing district. I was glad he hadn't. Really, it had only been about a month since I'd last seen him, but with all the events that had occurred recently, it felt like longer. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but once we were all in the living area they had finished, and Giuseppe walked in, nodding to all of us. He looked the same as he had when I left him in New Orleans. He wore black slacks and a black long sleeved shirt with a mandarin collar. He was pale. He was two shades away from pure white alabaster. I could see the veins in his face and hands, and I knew from experience that when he manipulated the shadows those veins became blacker and more pronounced. His eyes were without white, all pupil, he was seldom NOT manipulating the darkness in some fashion. Now was no exception.

I cracked a small smile and sat sideways in one of the over stuffed armchairs, legs dangling off one arm. I always felt more secure and comfortable when I knew Giuseppe was around.

He held out his hands to us and spoke to everyone as a group. "I am very glad that my faith in all of you was not misplaced. I greatly appreciate you're willingness to get involved with my pack, even though it was not required of you."
The way he said 'my pack' was less like he was the pack's leader, and more like the pack was his possession. His gaze paused on Ori (eyes still completely black.. and while I was getting used to that, Ori seemed to be a little spooked by it. Or it could've been the fact that the last time he ran across Giuseppe, Ori got the shit beat out of him. Who knows.) "You are free to go, if you like, Grigori Ironfeather. I will not threaten your family again."
Ori looked as though he didn't fully believe him. "Would you have hurt them in the first place?"
Giuseppe gave a small shake of the head. "No. I would not have, but they needed your help. You are free to go."
Ori settled back into the cushions of the couch and shrugged. "I think I'll stick around.. my last pack.. well.. lets just say daily beatings weren't unheard of. I'm getting kind of used to NOT having to deal with that..."

At that, Nobody pulled a rolled up newspaper out from god knows where and smacked Ori in the face with it. I had to wonder how long he'd been hiding that paper waiting for the opportunity. "Unless you're a bad dog!" Ori just rolled his eyes. He apparently had more patience than I did.
Giovanni snorted. "Besides, you still owe me for that gun. I ain't lettin' you off the hook."

I regarded Ori, expression curious. "Really? You want to stick around because we don't beat the shit out of you? Surely there's more to it than that." My words were tinged with sarcasm, but really, I was just curious to hear what he had to say. Regardless of what Ori may have thought, I really didn't have any major problem with him... yet. Aside from the fact that he was mildly irritating.. his usefulness outweighed the annoyance.

But it was Giuseppe who answered my question. "It's because you all are just too interesting to leave behind, I'd imagine."
I looked at Ori, one eyebrow raised in question. he gave a small shrug of acquiescence.

"How did you know that I was sent here to help them in the first place? How'd you know that my uncle Stepping Feather sent me to Chicago in my vision quest?" Ori asked. Giuseppe gave him a questioning expression similar to my own. "I did not know you were sent here, or that you were related to Stepping Feather. Though I did note a passing resemblance.."
Ori opened his mouth to respond, but then closed it, furrowing his brow in confused thought at that revelation.

Giuseppe turned his attention to the rest of us. "Please, tell me if there is anyway that I can help you. It is the least I can do. I at least owe you that much."

"Got a spare 20k lying around so I can pay off this guy?" Ori said sarcastically, jerking a thumb at Giovanni.
Giuseppe gave a single nod. "Certainly. Do you have an account number?"
Ori blinked, taken aback. "Oh shit.. no, I was just kidding."
"I am not. It is the least I can do."
"Uh..well..yeah..thanks..." Ori said as Gio scrawled a number on a piece of paper and handed it to Giuseppe, who slipped it into his coat and settled down on one of the couches.

"So whats up with that ghost? The others said it was yours..." Ori asked.
"It is. It takes great pleasure in getting in my way and making things difficult for me." Giuseppe answered.
"Which means sometimes making things difficult for us." I interjected. Giuseppe nodded. "Yes. I am doing what I can to deal with it's mischief."
"As long as it stops killing people." Ori said with a frown.
"Yes. That is..problematic. It will be addressed." I could tell by the way that Ori's eye twitched that he had picked up on the tone in Giuseppe's voice. The tone that said Giuseppe didn't really care that the ghost was killing people for the people's sake, but merely that the deaths were very inconvenient for him.It was something I was used too. Something I was seeing the merit in more and more every night, really, even if I didn't like to admit it.

Ori fell silent again and Giuseppe looked at all of us expectantly. I let the others talk for now. Giuseppe may have felt that he owed us for this, but I didn't agree, at least in my case. It would probably take a shit ton of 'favors' before I felt like Giuseppe owed me a damn thing. As far as I was concerned, I was the one indebted. It was shaky logic, I realized. Hell, he'd turned me because he'd needed me, but I couldn't help but feel like he'd done me a favor by doing so, and training me thereafter. It wasn't necessarily logical.. but things that like seldom were. My relationship with Giuseppe was.. mutually beneficial, among other things..
"Does Mona know you're here?" I asked. He shook his head. "Mona is a good soldier. She awaits orders." Coming from someone else, I would have found that irritating. But I'd spent enough time around them both to know it was more a sign of their trust for each other that he'd say that.

Nadi's quiet voice broke the silence. "Do you know of any..magic libraries? or books? Or.. anything about Ray Fawkes? He was involved with the serial killer.. he's gone missing.. and we don't know where to look now..."
"I don't know much about magic libraries.. such things don't come very easily to the Santore's, I'm afraid. However, there is a tome in the Chicago museum of Natural history that may interest you. I do not know if it is magical or not, but it should at least prove informative. As for your friend.. I will see what I can do, but it will take some time."

The ice now broken, the others started to chime in. Nobody asked about two weapon fighting, but Giuseppe told him that Ori might be a better teacher than himself.
"Can you get any more information on Dana?" Nobody asked. Who the hell was Dana? Gio echoed my question..but aloud. "The baby I found in the Fae garden. her name is Dana. She's like..18 now." Nobody explained. Gio muttered something to himself about crazy faerie bullshit. Nobody ignored him and focused on Giuseppe, who just shook his head. "Unfortunately not. I don't deal with changelings." I could relate to that sentiment..

"Anyone else...?" He asked. I rolled off the chair and onto my feet in one fluid motion, starting off down the hallway without a word. I had something I needed help with.. but not just Giuseppe's. I went into Ori's room and grabbed his painting off the easel and brought it back into the sitting room with me. I showed it to everyone. "I need input.. from everyone. Ori and I both saw this imagery.. mine was slightly different, but basically the same. In mine, the black figure," I pointed to the figure on the canvas. "was talking to this woman in a tower. And this weapon was clear. I don't know how to interpret it. I'm kinda new at this shit." I passed the canvas around the room and sat back down in my chair, leaning forward to watch each person's face.

"Yeah.. I'm not really an artist..especially not in paints, but I felt I needed to paint it.. I mean, I didn't even really have paints..I had to use my own blood for the red.." Ori explained as the painting made its rounds. Giuseppe stared at him incredulously, then pointed up at the cieling. "There is an art store.. up.. and 2 blocks over..." his expression and tone did enough to convey that he felt Ori was functionally retarded without actually having to say it. Really, what the fuck? Painting in blood? This isn't some cheesy horror flick, despite evidence to the contrary. Ori gave a sheepish shrug. "I'm new in town."

We discussed the painting, but really didn't come up with much. The shadow with the clear blade reminded me of Roxanne, but that could just be coincidental, since I saw her and her glass knife tonight. But then again, it could be significant. I quirked a brow at Giuseppe, who had remained silent, for his input, but he just shook his head. "Prophetic visions aren't really my strong suit." That wasn't surprising. I imagined he didn't like anything that implied the future was set, anything that implied he was not in control of his own destiny... I wasn't one to believe in fate, but this was at least somewhere to start. But after another few minutes of getting no where, everyone agreed to give it more thought, and we put the painting away.

"Giovanni, I'd like to go over those documents with you that you recovered from Yousef's secret room. Now.. do you have any more information on this.. Canaanite Heresy?" Giuseppe asked.

I felt myself tense up before I could control it. Mentioning them made me think of what they did to Mona. Everyone else could probably hear my teeth grinding. Giovanni just smirked at me and said, "The Mallaus is doing work on them right now..two young guys have infiltrated them.. or at least were supposed to last time we talked to the priest in charge of it." Giuseppe seemed intrigued. "Oh? What priest?"
"Father Francis Meyers." My voice was quiet, and colored with suppressed rage as I answered. Fucking Heresy..
"Really. Let them do their work. I will check up on the matter."

I stood suddenly, remembering that I had something that might be useful. I strode purposefully down the hall and into my bedroom to retrieve the leaded vial Mona had given me. I tossed it to Giuseppe as I reentered the room.

He never actually touched it. Instead, his shadow reached out and plucked it from the air, holding it up for him to examine. He gave it a once over, then his shadow tossed it back at me. I caught it with one hand. "Hold on to it. You may need it." I shrugged and put it away. "So.. is there any other reason you're interested in finding information about these fuckers? Besides the attack?" I asked. As though there needed to be a better reason. Giuseppe echoed my thoughts with his words. His face went stone still and his voice downright frigid. "They hurt my Mona."

I just gave a nasty smirk in response, chalk full of promised violence. Giuseppe left after that, his parting words a reminder that I could text him if we needed anything. I let myself hope for a second that he was staying in town for awhile before I shoved the notion aside as useless. He'd be where he needed to be.

Once he left, I went to check on the web cam, and found a note from Theo taped to my monitor. "Gone for awhile. Orders now yours again. Kisses. -Theo" Ugh.

Currently, Birch was writing at his desk, but I couldn't see the paper. I took the time to speed through the last few hours of footage I had. The only interesting thing was a phone call between him and Loki. He seemed pissed and told Loki to get his ass over there. This guy really is a dick... I put that laptop aside and pulled out my main computer. I didn't want to check my email on the one connected to Birch, even if it was going through several proxies.

To my surprise, I had an email from Rashida, the Khaibit. In something that looked like Sanskrit. Who types in Sanskrit? I printed it and took it to Gio to translate. It read, "The mirror is back where it belongs. I am sending you a gift in way of thanks." Well, that works for me. As nice as it was to have Icegalos at my beck and call, I found it more useful right now to be in Rashida's good graces. God only knew if it would amount to anything. I returned to my emails to look at the only other new one I had (aside from a shit ton of spam..). It was an email from 'sonofabitch22@hotmail.com'

I was automatically suspicious. Not only did I not recognize the email address, but technically it shouldn't be possible to even MAKE a hotmail account with a curse word in it. I didn't know how difficult it was to bypass those filters, I'd never tried.. but it meant whoever had sent it knew what they were doing. I scanned the email with 5 different programs before opening it. All it contained was an attachment- a zip file that just had a string of numbers for a file name. I ran a shit ton of scans on the file. From what I could tell, there was nothing dangerous inside. So, since I apparently have more curiosity than common sense, I opened the zip file. It was series of JPEGs. I hit print, grabbed the pile, and went into the lab.

"Hey! Get the fuck in here!" I yelled as I walked in.
Ori poked his head into the lab. "Who?"
"All of you." I growled, handing Gio the pile of photos. "huh.. So that's where she was." Ori examined the pictures over Gio's shoulder and the others filed in. I folded my arms across my chest, drumming my fingers against my arm impatiently. "Who is it? She looks familiar." I asked.
"Olivia Citysmith. Shes the Alpha of the largest pack in the city." Ori said, then pointed at the other figure in the photo. "I have no idea who this is."

The photos showed Citysmith and another person talking near a window in a high rise. Gio marked it as the John Hancock Center based on its architecture. There was one photos taken from the ground floor, pointing up, and judging by the patterns of lit windows, we could tell the two were on one of the residential floors, looked like 38. There were time stamps on the photos. They were taken while we had been fighting Pain of Animals. The figure that Citysmith spoke to never turned his face to the window. He had on a hoodie with the hood up over his face, dark jeans, and black converse sneakers. Nadi took one of the photos and frowned slightly. "Is that the serial killer?"

I blinked at her in surprise, then snatched one of the other photos, staring hard. My voice was more accusatory than I meant for it to be when I asked, "What makes you say that?"
She pointed to his feet. "The shoes, and the fact we never see his face.. can we tell what shoe size it is? Killer was like a 9 right?"
I scowled and tossed the photo on the table. "We could figure it out.. but as far as we know he wasn't using the same body every time.. so shoe size could be moot."
"Oh yeah.."
I grabbed another photos and examined it. "Might not be him though.. I don't want to make assumptions. I'm wondering if this is what the vision was referring too.. and if so, does that mean Citysmith is sick or corrupted?"
Gio put his photo down and shrugged. "Lets not jump to conclusions concerning that either.. where the fuck did you get these?"
"Anonymous email.. 'sonofabitch22@hotmail.com' I've got no idea who it is or why they sent these. Do you know where the shooter would have to be to take these Gio? I'm not familiar with Chicago geography."

He shrugged. "It could be any number of buildings.. that Trump hotel, hell, if the lens was long enough, and it would have to be really fucking long, it could even be the Kluczynski Federal Building or the Willis Tower...or a helicopter. We know a guy who could get into the federal building.." I considered that option.."Martindale? Maybe.." But I wasn't convinced. Gio took out his phone and snapped shots of the photos, sending a text. A few minutes later he announced, "Bella says helicopter."

Nobody held up the photo taken from the ground floor. "Look up who owns the condo."
Ori and Gio both shook their heads. "It's more than likely a safe house." Gio said.
I checked it out just in case. It was.. name on the address was 'John Smith' and paid in cash every month.
"Well we need to figure out who she was talking too. If it is the serial killer, we need to know." I said. What I didn't add was that I would've looked into it anyway, even if I didn't suspect the serial killer. It was too reminiscent of the vision, and that made me feel like it was important.
"We could set up my surveillance device if it wasn't in pieces on the work bench." I glared at Gio. he pointedly ignored the glare. "Its too big. Besides, they probably wont be going back there for at least a week, and don't you have to be within like 10 feet of it for it to work?"

Damn. He was right. I hate it when he's right.
Ori grinned at us. "So lets go over there and take a look at the security tapes. We can watch for who came and went for the night and figure it out."
I raised a brow at him. "And you think you can find the security office fast enough to keep us from getting caught? The place has 100 floors."
"Sure. I did surveillance in Vegas, those places are usually all set up the same."
I perked up at that. "You did surveillance? Well shit.. you have useful skills after all. I'm up for it."

"Can I come?" Nadi asked. I just shrugged. "If you can be stealthy, sure... though I'd prefer it if our resident lock pick tagged along too..." I looked at Nobody, who gave me that unsettling smile. "Sure. I'll come."

Gio settled onto his stool. "Well I'm staying. Too hard to hide a cripple. Besides.. I got work to do."
Ori looked at Nadi. "Is Becca coming too?"
I suppressed the urge supersede myself between him and Nadi. I didn't bother to suppress the look of supreme annoyance on my face. "I'm the one you should be asking...and no. We have enough people going, it will be difficult to hide as is without one more."
Nadi fucks her and people start assuming that she's got say in the matter. Becca is my fucking ghoul goddammit.

We left. It didn't take long to get over there, and once we were inside, it was simple enough to talk our way passed the security guard. And simple enough for Nobody to lift his radio without him noticing. It was actually pretty impressive. You'd think a guard would notice the weight being lifted from his belt.. but no. That crazy faery asshole really is good at what he does. We made it into the maintenance hallways with little trouble. Nobody hung out on the ceiling, rotating through several faces before settling on one he liked, and I generated a field of shadows to counteract security cameras in the area.

It didn't take long for that to warrant a response. The radio crackled and we heard, "Brown out in in Hallway G. Can't see a damn thing. Matt, you're in the security room right? Go check it out." "Roger. I'll take a look."

Well that was convenient, if unintentional. We ducked into a storage room until he passed us, then hightailed it to the security room. Grigori moved like he'd grown up in the building. I immediately began reading through the recorded footage of the night.
"Woah..that's..wow." Ori said suddenly as I fast forwarded through footage.
"What?" Nobody asked.
"This place.. is spotless on the spirit side. Like, completely devoid of any negative spirits. Its... impressive. I didn't think that it was possible to get a territory this CLEAN. It's a bit disconcerting.."
Nadi must have popped on her own voodoo because I heard a "mmm" of agreement come from her.

We found our guy, both coming and going from the condo, and I don't think anyone was surprised when he never once looked at the camera. His face was obscured by his hoodie the entire time. He knew exactly where the cameras were and avoided looking at a single one of them.
"Goddammit." I growled. We weren't going to ever get a break with this asshole.
"Don't worry. I've got an idea! I saw it on CSI! Lets head back." started making a copy of what discs he could, primarily the one from tonight. It was then that the radio crackled. "Headed back. Nothing unusual. Wasn't even dark when I got over there."

"Damn. Nobody, can you take him out?" I watched the guard approach on the monitor.
"No problem."
"Don't kill him."
He just gave me that creepy as shit smile and climbed up onto the ceiling right above the door. As it opened, the guard was still talking on his radio when Nobody jumped down onto him and knocked him unconscious.

"Matt? Matt, what happened?" Nobody straightened and plucked the radio out of the guards limp hand and put it to his mouth. He did a perfect impersonation of the guard's voice. "Everything is fine. I hit my head on that low hanging monitor again. I swear to god I'm going to take a sledge hammer to that thing some day."
"Heh, yeah, I hear ya. Lemme know if anything else looks weird." "Roger." Nobody put the radio back on the guys belt and proceeded to tie him up while we finished with the discs.

He hadn't regained consciousness as we were leaving, so we untied him and put him below the offending monitor.

When we got back, Giuseppe had returned and was going over documents with Gio. Ori headed straight for a computer and popped in the disc. He isolated a frame. We watched as he zoomed in, not on the figure in the hood, but on the picture frame next to him. The one with the glass so clean you could.. well.. see this guy in it. The guys face was unnaturally blurred. It was impossible to discern his features. Ori threw up his hands in disgust. "Dammit! I was sure that would work!"

I sighed. "Well, he's definitely supernatural. Problem is..what kind?"
Nadi tilted her head and regarded me. "Not a vampire?"
I shrugged. Giuseppe walked in and spoke as he leaned down to peer at the screen. "There are many other supernaturals who can blur their reflections with an act of will... is this your musical friend?"
I stiffened. "Why do you ask that?" Giuseppe pointed at the image. "Well he isn't a vampire.. only the face is blurred." I blinked and leaned in close. Goddamn. He was right. I hadn't noticed before.. but the hoodie was sharp, detailed. The face was the only thing out of focus. If he were kindred, the entire reflection would be indiscernible. I swore, long and loudly.

"Why would Citysmith be meeting with the serial killer?" Gio asked from the doorway.
"Fuck if I know. Doesn't make sense. And who the fuck would send us these?" I answered. Giuseppe clicked through a few things on the computer for a moment then said, "Who is sonofabitch22?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. anonymous email account."
He straightened and stepped back from the computer. "Well, find that out and you may be able to figure out why they sent you the photos."
I gestured helplessly to the machine. "Its anonymous.. there's no way too.." Then I had a thought. Maybe there was a way to figure out who it might be.. or at least where it originated from.

I didn't bother to finish my sentance. I sat down and started typing furiously. "I may be able to track the IP address that made the account... fuck." I resisted the urge to slam a fist through the table.
"What?" Gio leaned in over my shoulder.
"Routed through a proxy server. More than one it looks like. In Russia." I scowled and leaned back in the chair.. wracking my brain.
"Whats the name on the account?" Gio asked.
"SOB. No help there."
"Well who do we refer to as son of a bitch?"
I let out a humorless laugh. "I refer to quite a few people as sons of bitches." But I got sinking sensation when Gio asked that. There was one person in particular...who's initials happened to be SB.. but how the fuck was I going to figure it out for sure.

Gio and I had the same thought at the same time. "Air traffic control!" It sounded like stereo, coming from both of us at once. There had to be some record of the flight. Air traffic control would be pretty tough to get into, so I started with the eaiser options first. It was possible that it was either a news traffic helicopter, or a police chopper, and those networks would have less security. News was a bust.. only one flight tonight, and it wasn't during the correct time frame. When I tried the police system I got a scare.. traced. I had been sloppy and they'd noticed me snooping. I swore quietly and ignored the others asking what was wrong until I managed to lose the trace and back out of the system. It took a good 20 minutes before I knew my tracks were safely covered. I would have worked up a sweat if I still had normal bodily functions.

But I wasn't going to quit that easily. I started in on the air traffic control system, going more slowly and watching my back more thoroughly. It took awhile, but I found the info we were looking for. I smirked and sat back. "One flight matches our time frame and location. Private helicopter owned by a medical supply company... which happens to be a front business. Money trail leads to Brigman Limited, LLC. Real estate company based out of Chicago." Then I paused.. and frowned.. and got that sinking feeling again. "That name sounds familiar.. but.. I can't place from where..."

Gio eyed my suspiciously. I think he had the same frightening idea that I did.
"I tried to find a home address for the owners, but after the trace from the police, its probably not a good idea for me to be snooping anywhere else right now.." I said.
"Don't need it. Pull up a list of all their commercial properties." Gio said.
I pulled up the list, and if I still had a heartbeat, it would've been pounding. I sat stone still, staring at the screen.

Giovanni read off the addresses to himself until he came to roughly the middle of the list. "Son of a bitch. That's Solomon Birch's Eugenics farm. Why in the holy fuck would Solomon Birch be sending us these photos? How would he know your email address?" All eyes fell on me and the realization was almost palatable. Curious eyes became shocked eyes. Shocked eyes became annoyed and angry eyes. "Harper.. did you hack into Solomon Birch's computer to spy on him?" Nobody asked.

I leaned back in the computer chair and let it turn slowly to face everyone, hands folded in my lap and expression utterly unrepentant. As I did, I reached over and pulled up the video feed from Birch's webcam on the other computer. The chair was empty, and I could finally see what he'd been writing. It was tapped to the chair. It read, 'Oh how clever they are. I love it when they're clever, It makes it that much sweeter when they start to scream.'

I looked at everyone with eyes blank of expression expect challenging defiance, but the message shook me. I hadn't expected that. However, I'd be damned if I let them see me scared of Birch.
"Yes. Yes I did."
What came next was a barrage of rhetorical questions and insults. Nobody told it it had to be the stupidest thing I'd ever done, which was saying something. Giovanni was telling me I must be absolutely bat shit insane, Nadi looked at me and shook her head, but remained silent. Ori just seemed confused. I heard "Why the fuck would you do that?" more times in that 10 minute tirade than I care to count. I said nothing to any of them. I looked at Giuseppe to gauge his reaction, and he simply looked at me and quirked a brow. I shrugged. His unspoken comment was the only one I responded too. "Had to see if I could do it."
That caused another avalanche of shit from nearly everyone. Giuseppe never said a word. I didn't bother to explain myself any more than that.

"You get to deal with this bullshit then." Gio finally said.
I gave a nearly imperceptible smirk and nodded. "Oh I'm well aware. I was well aware of the possible consequences the second I did it. The real question is, if everyone is through telling me I'm an idiot, why would he send us the photos in the first place?" I turned back to the computer for a moment to avoid their accusing expressions and began checking things while I spoke. I cursed inwardly when I realized that Birch had pulled the same trick on me. He'd flipped on my webcam.. on the computer that I hadn't been using to spy on him. I'd disabled it on the burn computer.

He'd somehow gotten through all my fucking proxys and found where I was connected and followed that connection to the other computer, gotten through my substantial firewalls, and had turned my trick around on me. I had to admit, I was impressed. I had underestimated his computer skill. Most elder kindred avoid new technology. He apparently reveled in it. This is what I get for underestimating scary people. I didn't mention it to anyone, but I'm sure most of them noticed anyway. But they didn't say anything.

Gio frowned at me. "He's probably fucking with you.. and us.. by doing it. A game."
"But why would he be spying on Citysmith in the first place?" I stood, back to the computer screen.
"You're assuming he was spying on Citysmith." Gio said with a smirk.
That pulled me up short. Its possible he was after our serial killer too. But why? Fucking vampire head games..
The conversation wound down and Giuseppe and Giovanni retreated back into the lab to look over the papers. Everyone else went off to do their own shit.

I headed to my room to figure out who the fuck I was going to keep my ass out of Solomon Birch's fire when my phone rang. I rubbed the bridge of my nose, squeezing my eyes shut. One thing after another. No rest for the wicked and all that I guess.

My mental fatigue evaporated when I looked at the caller ID.
Call from: Maxwell

Ho-ly fuck. I started at it for a few beats and almost didn't answer it. But my curiosity got the better of me before the anger did. I picked up the line, but I said nothing.

Maxwell's voice was the usual deep baritone. He spoke in measured tones and I couldn't tell if the slight annoyance and anger was actually present, of if I was just projecting. "Ms. O'Shea."
My tones, however, were curt. I bothered with no niceties, and my tone was only a hair shy of downright rude. "Yes."
He didn't seem to notice the terseness of my response, or more likely, ignored it. "You are welcome to come back to court if you would like. The kill order has been rescinded."

The shock of that statement left me speechless long enough for Maxwell to hang up on me before I could so much as utter a sound.

What. The. Fuck.

I stared at the phone in my hand. This was probably the most unexpected thing that could have happened to me tonight. I was automatically suspicious. Possibilities raced through my mind. It was a trap. I'd come to court and he'd order me killed. It was a trap. I'd exit the sewers and he'd have me killed before I even stepped foot into court. It was a trap, Birch had convinced him to lure me out and was going to kill me himself. Every idea that was screaming through my head was that this wasn't real, and I'd die horribly if I believed it.

But in the very back of my mind was a tiny glimmer of hope that it wasn't. That I might actually have been "forgiven". I had no love for the Prince, and doubted I ever would, (what can I say, I'm a vindicative bitch who doesn't forgive betrayal easily, regardless of the reasoning) but shit.. it would be nice to be able to walk around above ground without worrying about EVERY vampire I might come across. However, my suspitions overwhelmed this tiny spark until it was mostly consumed. I wandered, still looking down at my phone, back into the lab. Giuseppe and Giovanni were having what amounted to a theological debate surrounding the philosophical implications of the scrolls in front of them. I stood and waited for a lull in the conversation.

Giuseppe turned and gave me a proding look. I can only image what my expression looked like at the moment.
"Do you need something Harper?"
My voice didn't work the first time I tried to answer him.. which made me furious with myself. I scowled and shoved the phone in my pocket, did my best to wipe the confused expression from my face, crossed my arms and tried again. Anger and suspicion were heavy on my words, but that was better than confused and scared. What the hell was wrong with me? "I just got a call from Maxwell. He said I'm free to come back to court. the kill order is gone. Do you think its a trap?"

He lifted one shoulder in a small shrug. "Maybe."
I just glowered. "It makes me suspicious."
I noted the faintest twitch of what may have been the beginning of a smirk or smile flash for a millisecond across his face. "That is not a bad mindset to cultivate."

I nodded absently and retreated back to my room. They resumed their conversation as I left. As I suspected, Giuseppe was going to leave the problem to me to deal with. As he should.. but...what the hell was I going to do?

January 15, 2010

The Spirit Hunt

December 7th, 2009

When I woke up, I immediately started strapping on my gear. We needed to be at the hotel asap, and I really didn't want to be the one keeping a bunch of angry (I wonder if there are any other kind?) werewolves waiting. I had enough of their kin pissed at me already. I walked past Ori's room as I stalked down the hall to the living area, only to stop half way there, turn around and back track to stand in his doorway, hands on my hips. He was sitting with his back to the door in front of a flimsy easel, putting the finishing touches on a canvas in front of him. It smelled strongly of blood.

I ignored the ache in the pit of my stomach, the restless rumble of the beast, and examined the piece. It wasn't a great painting, and the smell was coming from the red areas, presumably painted with blood, as if the scene wasn't macabre enough on its own. What I was looking at was a static representation of an almost identical scene I had watched in a bowl of blood the night before. There were minor differences, the 'wrong' looking man wasn't talking with the woman, but he was still there.. the shadow's weapon wasn't clear, but that's difficult to portray on canvas, especially for an amateur I'd imagine.

(((Players note: click on image to enlarge. Thanks to Ori's player for this digtal painting!))

"I saw it and felt like I had to paint it."
My eyes flicked away from the painting to briefly fall on Ori, then back to the painting. He was watching me, and probably had been since I stopped at the door.
I stayed quiet for a moment longer, taking it in with a thoughtful frown. Father Nico's gift to Ori made a little more sense now.
"I saw it too. Though mine was a little different. And in monochrome.. We'll talk about it later. We need to head out, and this will probably need a lengthy discussion." Before he could respond I turned and strode down the hallway, fighting to focus my thoughts on the upcoming encounter, instead of how sweet Ori's blood smelled.

We arrived at the hotel roughly on time and headed inside. There was a woman at the hotel bar who looked like she had no business being there. She had grease smeared across one cheek, dirt and grime so deeply embedded in her fingernails that no amount of washing would get it out, and her clothing was stained with oil and gunk. She looked like she probably worked more hours at the machine shop located next door than the hotel. But no one seemed to care.

That was probably because the hotel bar was currently empty.

She nodded to us as we entered, exiting the bar and motioning down the hallway with a jerk of her head. She led us to a partially concealed door (not that the door was secret, but the door to the basement isn't one management generally would want guests trying to open) that led down to the basement, where the wolves awaited. The basement was furnished like a game room, complete with comfortable seating, pool table, minibar, and mood lighting.

Over the next 15 minutes a few more people trickled in, including Calvin and his pack mate from the Slaughterhouse 5 whose name I wasn't sure of, Southpaw, and a few others I didn't know. Sansome was there, and Ori made small talk with a few others. I heard one call himself 'Sleepless William'. Apparently every pack in the city had sent as many representatives as they could afford to send.

With one exception. I stood silently as a few of the wolves bitched that none of the Architects of Steel had showed, apparently not willing to help in an area of Santore territory, even if it would effect the whole city if Pain of Animals escaped. Some of the wolves seemed especially bitter about this. It seemed childish to me that the Architects would be so petty.. but then, I never did fully understand werewolf politics. Or werewolves.

The next few minutes consisted of Sansome organizing everyone and giving out assignments. Our group was going to come from the south end. The only hiccup was a brief argument as to who would come from the East. Apparently too many people claimed it. I didn't understand the difference one way or the other.. again.. werewolves. What the fuck. I felt like I needed an interpreter even though they were all speaking English.

After a few minutes of planning, the woman from the bar came downstairs carrying a case. She set it on the table, sliding the catches, and opened the lid to reveal 4 metal medallions with unfamiliar carvings. Sansome nodded to her, picked up the medallions and handed one to me, Nadi, Gio, and Nobody. "These will allow you to step over."
"Will we be able to hurt them?" I asked.
He nodded. "These will also allow your weapons to hurt the spirits. It will also work once to call one of us to your aid, if you need it. Someone will answer the call if we're able. We need to make it to the center of the district before sunrise, that's where the disturbances are emanating from.. or else you'll be thrown out. These will only last until then." I vehemently hoped we were done long before sunrise.

It wasn't long after that that we headed out to the district. As we left, I caught sight of Sansome sliding a briefcase to the woman (who, as far as I could tell, was completely human). When she popped it open, I could see it was full of cash. Well fuck. Expensive little necklaces.

When we reached the south end of the district, Theo and Davaraux were waiting for us. Sansome pulled a full length mirror from the trunk and set it up in front of us. "You go." He nodded to Ori, who returned the gesture, pulled out a small pocket mirror, and disappeared. "Who's first?" Sansome asked.
Nadi volunteered.
"Stand in front of the mirror. Now I want you to look deep into your reflection. Very deep. Look deeper..." And he planted a hand on her back and shoved her into the mirror. Only she didn't break it, or smash her face into it, she fell into it like a portal.. and she was gone. I went next. I walked up and stood in front of the mirror.
"Okay now look dee..." He rolle his eyes. "Okay..so make yourself HAVE a reflection to look deeply into." He said with an exasperated sigh.
I held back a smirk, sharpened my reflection, and went through the same process as Nadi. Ori was waiting on the other side. He caught me as I stumbled through into the spirit world.

Everyone made it over fine. Sansome and Davaraux took off in another direction and we were left to face the hordes of spirits in front of us. The world looked odd. Everything seemed to have a life of its own. We stood in a river of rotting blood up to our shins with the meat packing district spread out before us like some twisted empire. Ori's sticks, Theo's keris, and Gio's shotgun all looked strange. Giovanni looked as though he was outlined in something, but the outline didn't quite match up to his actual proportions. I didn't have much time to examine the scene. The spirits knew we were there.

They approached us like waves on an ocean of blood. Pig spirits, as far as we could see, skinned faces leering grotesquely. I wondered how in the fuck we were going to wade through them all to get to the heart of the city. Surely it would take us a fuckin' week.. and I was pretty sure the sun still rose in the spirit world.

But we went to meet them. I may not always (or ever) like some of the people I spend my nights with, but in dangerous situations, times when the likelihood of death is high, if not probable... none of them are cowards. Every one of us faced down the torrent of malicious spirits with a determined face (or a highly anticipatory smirk, depending on who you were looking at) with weapons at the ready.

The pigs were on us in seconds. In a blur of speed, several things happened, almost at once. Pigs lunged at Ori, their teeth bared and already bloody. He fell back, not in retreat, but into a defensive posture that caused the attack to roll harmlessly off his shoulder. It also had something to do with the hazy visage of a ghost that flared up in front of him, knocking the pig aside, then winking out again. I'd have been more surprised if I'd had time to be. I wasn't sure if this was new, or just an effect of being in the spirit realm. I had seen Nadi doing her hand motions before we engaged the pigs.. so it seemed likely the ghostly armor was her doing.

Nobody (who was one of us who had the smirk, of course) pulled some of his gravity defying acrobatic shit that I was always silently jealous of and lept on top of one of the pigs, burying a long knife into the back of its neck. He yanked the knife out and used the momentum to throw himself into a back flip and landed with a foot on two pigs, standing side by side, and shoved one knife into each spirit. He was so quick the pigs never even had time to react before they became nothing but...well..nothing. They pretty much exploded, and ceased to exist. Nobody was back in his initial position almost before we could tell he'd left, and the look on his face said he was enjoying himself immensely.

The second that Nobody was out of the line of fire, Gio had leveled his weird ass looking shot gun at the oncoming assault. He held it with one hand, the other still on his cane for support and said in a low voice that seemed to carry over the entire battlefield, "Dumah..." The writing etched into the barrel glowed red. "SCREAM!" And he pulled the trigger.

What spewed from that gun wasn't the product of shotgun shells and gun powder. It can only be described as a swath of pure destruction. It looked like pure fiery wrath spewing out of the barrels. It burned with a heat that was not fire, but concentrated rage. Like the gun was channeling all the hurt, anger, pain, hatred and cruelty around it into a malleable and violent attack. The shotgun had become a cannon of savagery. It cut down the front FEW lines of pigs with disturbing efficiency. We were able to make impressive headway towards the city center because of it. My main thought at the time, though, wasn't about that. It was much less analytical. It was something like..."Holy fucking mother of GOD! Where did he get THAT?!" I'm a profound thinker, really.

During all this, Theo was doing his own version of mage voodoo, as was Nadi. I think it was their support magic that allowed us to take so many blows and remain mostly unscathed.

Spirits lunged at Nobody in retaliation, but he nimbly sidestepped them, leaving them vulnerable to the tire iron that Becca brought down with impressive force. It ladned against the pigs skull with a wet 'THUNK' caving in its face. The pigs were fast, so I made myself faster. I leveled my semi-auto at a pig that was in mid-leap. I took my time to line up the perfect shot. I was, after all, moving exponentially faster than the pig. The time taken to aim was mere milliseconds, and when I pulled the trigger, the pig exploded into oblivion. I didn't stop there. gun I spotted another pig gathering itself to attack. Right as the bullet left the chamber I swung the pistol around and fired again. Unfortunately, the recoil fucked me up and the second bullet never landed. I could speed my movements, but not those of the firearm.

Ori went at one with his sticks, but it glanced harmlessly off the things shoulder as it went after Theo. Its sharpened hooves cut through his ghostly armor and left a moderately deep gash in his arm, and the pig promptly died as Nobody slit its and one of its companions throats. Theo grimaced but didn't give ground. If anything, he seemed to start acting quicker to reapply his armor.

Giovanni growled low in his throat, a disturbingly bestial sound, and suddenly shifted upward. Giant black wings unfurled from his back, forward sweeping horns erupted from his forehead, and he grew to about 10 feet tall. His voice became deeper and more booming as he leveled his shotgun again. "You fucking asked for it." as he fired the devastating weapon and cut another path through the ranks. Gio glanced back at Cheshire, who had been sitting in the back this whole time. "You just gonna SIT back there?!" The cat glared at him. "You haven't fulfilled your end of the deal." Gio growled. "I'm a little busy!" Chesh just glared harder. "Then I suggest you make it quick." Gio's eyes burned with angry fire as he turned his focus back to the enemy.

One spirit that had avoided the onslaught hunkered down, and its back rippled and exploded outward. Dozens of carrion birds shot up into the sky, wheeled, and dive bombed Giovanni and Theo. The birds must have hit hard, because I smelled the fresh blood well up from the shallow gashes on them both as they threw up their arms to shield their eyes.

Pigs closed in on Becca and me, too close for firearms, so I pulled out my blades and took out two more. Becca took to another. It was less impressive than the way Nobody does it, but it got the job done. Ori followed suit, decimating another with blunt force trauma. It was then that the spirit decided to change things up a bit.

Pigs started to jump..on top of each other. The carrion birds started flying in quick circles, forming a spiral downwards until they were re-engulfed by the pigs. There was s sickening sound of bones snapping and wet flesh tearing.. and a new enemy stood up. He was 12 feet tall, and dressed in a butchers apron, covered in old blood. His head was that of a pigs, skinned and dead. He held a huge meat cleaver in his right hand, and his attitude was NOT friendly.

Nobody and Gio didn't even wait for it to finish forming before his shotgun caused the butcher's shoulder to explode in a shower of gore, and Nobody's knives bit into its other arm. The wounds immediately began to close up again. Giovanni went to one knee and drew a quick symbol on the ground, it flared a sickly green. "Fine. Here's my end of the deal." He said as he stood to face the monster again. As far as I could tell, nothing happened.

It swung that cleaver with deadly force, forcing Theo to take a step back under the shear fury of the blow, blood seeping from his wounds. But both he and Nadi made with more of their mage voodoo. I had the feeling once again that if it weren't for their shields, we'd already have massive casualties.

This thing was big, but then, the last time we fought something this big, he'd been an ancient Egyptian god. I tried not to think about the fact that we'd had all of Chicago helping us as I rushed in and pulled my knives across the back of its leg in an attempt to hamstring the motherfucker. Becca and Ori were right behind me, bringing weapons down on his kneecap. None of us succeeded in bringing him down. He just knit the wounds back together and kept swingin'.

It swung again, but not at us closest to him.. but at Gio. The cleaver forced its way through the shields and into his gun arm. But the shields had taken away most of the blows strength, and it only left a wound a couple inches deep, instead of severing his arm and half of his torso.

I glimpsed Nobody slip round behind the beast and lost sight of him. I caught a flash of metal as Nobody jumped up and buried both knives in the creatures back. He hung on. As his knives hit home, the beast howled.. a grating sound that nearly caused my ear drums to rupture.. and started to change. Its head fell forward and shifted lower, down to its chest, and two more arms erupted from its back. Giovanni fired his shotgun again, aiming right at its chest. What none of us expected was the creature spinning swiftly around and putting Nobody into the path of the blast (god knows why he hung on to the fucking knives..). Things seemed to move in slow motion as that beam of pure carnage flew straight at his unprotected back.

There was no way he'd survive it.

In a flash and a roar of the shotgun, Nobody was gone. But not in bloody pieces, and not dissolved out of existence, but 20 feet up in the air being dragged through the sky by a black winged cat. He had not, thankfully, taken the full force of the blow. But he was pretty fucked up. Blow poured off of his unconscious form from countless gashes and abrasions. Cheshire fell from the sky like a bullet (I didn't even see him take off) and laid the changeling gently on the ground a few yards behind us, in relative safety.

If my heart still beat it would have frozen in my chest at the sight of a comrade's certain death (like him or not, he's still a comrade), only beating again once that death had somehow been avoided. I cursed and bolted to him. I skidded to a halt at his side and immediately started dressing his wounds with strips of his own clothes and supplies I'd brought with me. He was still unconscious and bleeding pretty heavily, his real blood mingling with the rotting spiritual blood he lay in.

As I fell into my old role as medic, I kept one eye on the battlefield. Everyone else had recovered quickly from the scare. Ori attacked the left side, bringing his sticks against its arm. He managed to cause the arm to explode outward in chunks of decayed meat. It simply reached around to the front with one of its new arms, and now held the cleaver with two hands. As though one armed blows hadn't hurt enough. Fuck.

It gave a mighty swing, going for Gio in an attack that probably would have cleaved the Lucifuge in half, but right before it reached him, it only cut empty air. Gio was suddenly 2 feet further back than he had been seconds before, and Theo's aura was blazing. Giovanni recovered quickly from the unexpected movement, nodded briefly to Theo and took aim one more time. The shotgun roared, but instead of hitting it full force in center mass, we all watched as the cleaver cracked and shattered as the blow tore through the weapon. Gio hadn't been aiming for its chest.

The butcher paused, looking at the cleaver with empty eye sockets, and let it clatter to the ground. Skin and muscle rolled and bubbled, and in an instant its arms had transformed into wicked spikes. All three of them. I wasn't sure destroying that cleaver was the best idea ever. For the first time, it spoke, but I'll be damned if I could understand it. Ori translated, yelling over the roar of battle. "I will rain destruction down upon you!" And the butcher took the arms-made-spikes and slammed them, one by one, into the pig head on its chest. Then its flesh started to swell and churn.

"Get to cover!" Ori screamed, grabbing Becca and pulling her along with him. I picked up Nobody and booked it towards the closet building, about 20 yards away. I made it there in seconds. Gio was right behind me, no longer in need of a cane in his demon form. Theo had opened a portal and dragged Nadi through it with him. We hunkered down just as we heard an earth shattering explosion of meat and bone.

We waited for an impact of projectiles that never came. As we all slowly peeked outside, we could see two men standing in front of the place the butcher had been, back to us. As we moved from our cover and towards them, we could tell it was Alexi and Nick. They were working together to form a container for a huge mass of flesh and splintered bone.

Nadi nodded to her brothers. "Thanks." He returned the nod, expression strained. "Anytime." Alexi scowled and said, "This time." I also thanked them, and Alexi just glared at me. "Fucking go!" So we did.

We were able to get several hundred yards before we came across the next wave of defenses. They were bigger. They were bulls. Horns slick with gore. I saw Gio survey the incoming army and frown as he reached into his shirt and touched his pendant briefly.

We heard them before we saw them. Joyous laughing echoed across the landscape, completely at odds with the sounds of death that surrounded us. It was jarring. We kept pushing forward as Calvin and his pack mate seemed to appear out of no where and began cutting a path through the bulls. The look on Calvin's face was pure unadulterated elation as he tore through ranks of malicious spirits. They gave us enough time to get through the majority of them, but there were so many. All of us seemed to feel the nagging urge to get to that city center as soon as possible. We were all on the same wavelength without ever having to say a word. We'd use the coins. If the werewolves couldn't take the time to help, then we'd cut our own path, but if they were in a spot to slingshot us forward, there was no reason not to let them.

I don't know who touched the next coin, but someone must have, because we heard the sound of familiar thunder as a streak of red fire impacted on the ground a few meters in front of us, bull spirits torn to pieces and tossed up into the air by the concussive blast. We never actually saw Davaraux, but his weapon was unmistakable. What we did see was Sleepless William walking calmly through the spirits. The look on his face was one of deep, strained, concentration. Bulls fell and disappeared before him. It took a few more yards before we could see why. He was surrounded by a small pack of ghostly wolves, teeth stained with what I could only assume to be the blood of the spirits. They provided enough support that we could push through the bulls with few problems.

We were getting closer. But Pain of Animals hadn't used up its reservoir of defenses quite yet. We came to a place where the blood had pooled. It did not flow like a rotting river as it had in other areas. The pool was perfectly round, and roughly 15 feet across (from what I could tell. but a lake in the middle of a river is a bit tricky to measure accurately)

We slowed our approach, weapons still drawn. We stepped to the edge, and before we could start our debate on how to get passed the obstacle, the surface began to boil... and a shape came straight up out of the water. It reminded me how the lady of the lake had risen so effortless from Lake Michigan. Only where she had been beautiful and ethereal, this creature was bloody and radiated violence... which.. was still beautiful.. in a completely different way.

I think we all tensed at once for an assault. I tightened my grip on my knife and traced my fingertips across my medallion with the other. We watched (it all happened very quickly) as she raised a hand in the air, droplets of blood pulling themselves free of the pond and rising into the air at her bidding. We watched as they lengthened, forming into long pointed spears that seemed to hover there for an eternity, aimed at our hearts... and yet her expression was pure seduction.

She threw her hand towards us and the blood obeyed, racing towards each of us at blinding speed, and we had no doubt they'd be sharp as knives.

But the black blur of muscle and fur was faster. I hadn't seen many werewolves in their war forms, but this one I recognized immediately as she used a 3 foot long piece of jagged glass to slice clean through every single one of those blood spikes. In one blow. Roxanne landed on the far side of the lake, crouched and ready. She snarled at the spirit, jerking her head at us to move on and while I was grateful (and surprised, where the hell had she come from?), I had no desire to stick around and watch. We let her handle it, and kept going.

More fucking bulls. Fucking HELL. We could see our goal right in front of us. A giant, towering building that looked like a manufacturing or power plant of some kind. All the blood flowed out from it. I think Nobody used his coin this time, because we all heard, "We are already here." And turned to see Blind Larissa with a hand on Nobody's shoulder.

Needless to say, we made it through those bulls in no time flat.

We barged our way into the plant at the same moment that Sansome entered from the other side. The place was not what I'd expected. A giant heart was suspended in the middle of the room by an unimaginable number of hoses, cables and other industrial crap. It was the size of a small sedan. It looked more like a bovine heart than a human one, and it was nearly black. It beat rhythmically, presumably using the tubes and hoses as veins and arteries. There was no blood on the floor, and there was no other machinery in the place, as though it had been built just to house this giant heart.

Sansome stood beside us as we surveyed the situation. I looked at him and pointed at the heart with a knife. "So what now? Destroy it?"
Sansome shook his head and said, "No. If we destroy it, the entire area will destabilize, which would end up being even worse."
Well shit. "Is there any way to weaken it then?" I asked. Surely we didn't come this far only to not be able to do anything about this thing...
"Maybe. I'm gong to try." And with that, Sansome began using his huge knife (we could actually see the spirit inside of it here) to carve a deep circle in the concrete around the heart. We watched silently as he dragged the blade through the floor, making his way back around to where he started.

He was almost done before the shit hit the fan.

He had about two feet left to go before the circle was closed when the heart gave one thunderous beat, louder than all the rest. Black waves of energy flooded off from the heart throwing Sansome across the room to slam into the far wall. I think he dented the metal wall.

Thankfully, we had remained alert. Theo reacted first, bolting to the spot of unfinished circle and slamming his keris into the ground, muscles straining to pull the blade through the hard concrete. The circle closed with an audible 'pop' and glowed for a brief instant. Of course, that pop might have also been the noise made when one of the tubes attached to the heart pulled itself free from the wall. It writhed down, quick as a serpant and snaked itself around Theo, rotted blood gushing out of the now open end. The keris fell to the ground and was carried to the other side of the circle by the flow.

It was Nobody who threw himself through the air, using his falling momentum to drag both of his blades down through the metal tentacle. The metal made a terrible screeching noise as it was torn apart. The tube fell limply to the ground, its blood flow becoming nothing more than a trickle. It gave a final spasm before laying still. Theo gave Nobody a brief nod in thanks. It was all they had time for.

Sansome was at Theo's side in seconds, winded, but otherwise unscathed.
"Thanks. If I tell you what to do, can you carve the symbols on the other side?"
Theo nodded. "Yeah. Show me."
Sansome drew in the air and Theo repeated his hand motions. Movement from the corner of my eye alerted me, and I whirled around to see the keris, moving by itself, to carve the symbol Theo was drawing in the air. That was certainly a handy trick..

As Sansome and Theo moved around the circle, carving lines into the ground, another pipe yanked itself free and flew towards Giovanni. He easily side stepped it, but upon missing, it reared back like a snake, coming to rest right above the heart. The heart pulsed several more times, again knocking the two stone carvers back out of the circle, just before Theo could finish the last symbol. The keris lay still, yards away from anyone who could wield it, and Theo was too disoriented to do a damn thing about it. The heart began to pound harder and faster, a thin trickle of completely black festering blood began to trickle from the tube above it, hissing as it hit the concrete and ate away the hard floor. It was gearing up to completely fuck us all. A feeling of dread and urgency slid through us all.

At this point, several things happened at once.

The heart gave one massive contraction, and time seemed to slow down. I saw the black sludge burst out of the tube with explosive force in a wide spray pattern. Gio and I threw ourselves out of the line of fire, but I could tell no one else was moving fast enough to avoid the attack. The flesh would be dissolved off their bones if that gore touched them, I knew that sure as anything.

As I dodged, my shadow did not follow me. Instead, it took off like a shot, lengthening towards the circle, passing under the heart and rising off the floor as it did so. As my shadow became three dimensional it also began forming human features as it crouched on the ground. One hand as pale as death held the keris and drove it into the half finished symbol, and with two quick, simple strokes, completed it.

The circle activated, white light shooting up out of the carvings. The black sludge that was hurtling towards everyone else smashed violently against the newly formed barrier and evaporated as if it had never been there at all. Everyone was frozen in place, fully away that catastrophe had narrowly been avoided. My shadow, now, no longer a shadow at all (in fact, my normal shadow had now returned) stood, keris in hand. Giuseppe faced Sansome, proud as ever. "There. I did something."

I watched Sansome's teeth clench, and his voice sounded more like a growl. "We are in your debt." He spit the words out as though they tasted foul.
Giuseppe smirked ever so slightly. "Yes. You do." He tossed the keris to Theo and walked out of the plant.

"That sonofabitch.." Gio said with an amused smirk. I just shook my head, looking at the floor as I did, to hide the smile. God knows how long he'd been hiding in my shadow, engineering this entire situation. He had responded to Sansome's challenge to get shit done in the only way he could. Indirectly. Giuseppe had used us to get the hunt called, then piggy backed over into the spirit realm on my shadow. Like that, no one but us would ever know he'd been involved.

The doors opened and more werewolves began to enter. I think it was all the spirit talkers... coming in to finish whatever it was that needed to be done to keep Pain of Animals in check.

We turned and walked out the door. Ori walked beside me and asked in a low voice, "So, uh.. how long has he been pretending to be your shadow?" I felt a rather nasty smirk spread across my face. "For the last couple weeks, at least." Ori proceeded to go slightly pale. Giuseppe had heard every word of what Ori had said about him. I didn't bother to tell him that Giuseppe was unlikely to give a shit. I enjoyed watching him sweat too much to ruin it.

When we walked out, I noticed that the river of blood was fading away. I also noticed a very angry werewolf yelling at Davaraux in a language I would never understand. Roxanne and Davaraux faced each other, Roxanne in her near-human form, in the midst of a more than just heated argument. The other werewolves stood around, mostly in human form, and watched solemnly. It seemed like it was something that needed to happen, judging by their facial expressions.

"Ori.. what are they saying?" I asked.
Ori proceeded to translate for us.

"Coward!" Roxanne bellowed.
"Watch your tongue." Davaraux growled.
"You dragged us here, leaving the locus unguarded! and whats worse, in hands of a mage!" Roxanne was nearly howling in rage. The mage she referred to was more than likely Bridgette.
"She'll take care of it." Davaraux responded.
"But she..is not..Uratha!" Roxanne yelled, each word louder and more angry than the last.
At that, Davaraux hung his head. "No, shes not.."
Roxanne sneered. "You're throat, old man."
Davaraux lifted his chin, exposing his throat to Roxanne. We turned our back on the rest of the scene. Not our business. But I didn't like it. They'd been vitally helpful. I didn't want to think what may have happened had they not been here to help us. But apparently that wasn't what was important to Roxanne.. and I couldn't even pretend to understand her motivations. Nadi frowned slightly and turned to the werewolf closest to us, one who's name I didn't know. "How do we exit?"

"Oh.. just break the medallions."

We all pulled out the medallions given to us. I think we were all eager to escape the werewolf pack drama. Nadi held her hand over hers, presumably to just decay it away.
"No! Stop!" Gio held out one hand in a frantic gesture. She looked up and quirked an eyebrow at him. "Why?"
"Because I need the pieces!" His expression was pleading.
She stared at him a moment longer, then gave a mostly imperceptible shrug, and snapped the medallion in her hands. We all did.

In an instant, we were all back where the whole thing had started, the meat packing district, and the cresent moon still hung high in the dark sky.