February 26, 2010

Harper- Beginnings

I wrote this as Harper's back story when I first entered the chronicle in '06. I've tweaked it a bit, thought about making it first person, but decided it worked better this way. So here you go! A look into how she used to be. (yes...still a bitch)) and yes, I'm sure some of the military stuff is inaccurate.. but.. get over it. That means you Ori. ;)

Harper sat in the back of the room as the others started with their considerable noise. She shifted uncomfortably and just watched from her chair. It was a bar, what did she expect, for everyone to leave her to her silent ruminations? If she wanted to be left alone, she shouldn’t have come. Not like Driscoll would have let me get away with staying home, she thought. She watched the dark haired man as he sauntered up to the stage and took the microphone. The karaoke machine played Love is a Battlefield, and Driscoll sang along like he wrote it himself. Harper grimaced as his voice broke. He was singing terribly off key. She glowered at him from her seat, to which his only response was a grin when she caught his eye. The bastard is doing it on purpose! He knows he can’t sing, but he assails our ears anyway, and they’ll all love him for it. Her thoughts about Driscoll were seldom charitable. The song ended and Driscoll made a deep theatrical bow. Everyone cheered. His close buddies making good humored jabs at him as he left the stage. He walked over and flopped down in the chair beside Harper as another soldier stepped up to the stage to serenade the bar goers.

“Why do you sing when you know you can’t?” Driscoll grinned at her comment, determined to make her have a good time despite her sour disposition. “Because I know all the words!” She looked at him incredulously and laughed despite herself. His grin widened at her reaction. “Knew you had it in ya O’Shea! A few more drinks and you’ll be gracing us with your beautiful rendition of Endless Love!” Her eyes widened at the suggestion, but he was off to the bar before she could utter protest. She watched after him with a small smile. He really is a good guy… cute too. But slowly her smile wilted as she watched him interacting with people on the way back to the table, drinks in hand. He was short for a man, 5’6, but he didn’t seem to mind. He was Italian, dark hair and eyes with a medium build. Nicely muscled, but most of the men there were. They were on active duty, stationed in Korea, many of them just out of basic.

Jordan Driscoll was the life of every party, even so far from home. Everyone loved him. He was charismatic, funny, and good natured. It was practically impossible to dislike the guy. Harper tried though. It was hard, especially since he had made it his personal mission to get her to open up and participate. He either didn’t understand her brooding, or just didn’t except it. No, he tried at every turn to break down her walls. If only. She thought sullenly. She wasn’t anti-social because she wanted to be. She had a deep seated desire to be as charming as Driscoll, which was why she allowed him to drag her along so often, but she was terrified at the prospect. She was attractive enough, tall and willowy with red hair and green eyes that held a strong personality, but it wasn’t enough to put her at ease in a crowd. Putting myself out there? To be judged? Why can’t you stick to anything Harper? How can you not have a goal? What’s wrong with you? No thanks. Still, she wanted it. But in her mind it was completely unattainable. The fact that it came so easy to Driscoll made her hate him more than a little. The times she admitted to herself that she really did like the guy made her hate him even more. Why should he get all the friends? All the attention? In the back of her mind she knew she wasn’t being fair to him, but her jealousy was stronger than her common sense; but her desire to be liked, by him especially, kept her from divulging her negative feelings towards him. In truth, he was probably her only real friend. She had yet to realize that.

“Rum and coke for the lady!” He sat with a flourish and put the drink in front of her. She mumbled her thanks and sipped the dark liquid. They sat for a few minutes, Driscoll either carrying on a mostly one sided conversation with her, or trying to involve her in conversations with anyone who walked by the table. He had made her laugh a few times, in his mind a great victory; though in actuality it only aggravated her more. When the karaoke machine began to spin out Don’t Stop Believing Driscoll jumped from his chair and grabbed her hand, only her sheer force of will kept her in the chair. “C’mon O’Shea! Let’s dance!” She frowned at him. She did that a lot. “There’s no dance floor.” He sighed dramatically. “Who cares? It’s a great song. Get off your ass and have some fun!” She responded by settling more firmly into her chair. He looked at her expectantly and waved his outstretched hand at her. She didn’t look at him as she said, “You go on, my knee is acting up.” Even with her eyes averted she knew his face had darkened, some of the good humor leaking out of his eyes. Before he could reply he was hailed from across the room. She waved him away before he could utter the apology she’d heard a million times. He wandered to the other side of the room giving her mournful glances as he left. She felt like a heel. Her knee was the only misfortune she could hold against him and oddly enough, the only one she didn’t.

In his zeal to get her involved, he’d signed her up for intramural football a couple years back. She’d made noises like she was pissed, but he had just grinned at her as she stalked out onto the field. She could hear him cheering for her as the ball was snapped, teasing her after the first tackle, and then calling for help when she didn’t get back up. She nearly fainted when she looked at her knee and saw parts that should never see the light of day. There was a shocking amount of blood, in her mind. Of course, she was used to treating the wounds, not receiving them. She didn’t feel it, not yet. Driscoll knelt down and tried to move her, shifting her knee in the process. She screamed then, the sound ending in a choked sob. Driscoll jumped back. She bit her lip trying not to let another sob escape. Tough as nails field medic and I’m crying. God how pathetic. Get a hold of yourself Harper. The medics arrived and she screamed again as they loaded her on to the stretcher despite her inner chastisement. Driscoll followed as the medics took her to the infirmary, flinching every time he could hear her screams and curses. He relaxed when she stopped screaming until he realized she had merely passed out from the pain. She came too again with tears streaming down her face, and Driscoll’s worried expression hovering over her. Every movement elicited at best a whimper, and at worst a muffled shriek. She lay like that for two hours before the doctor gave her something for the pain. She hadn’t realized until that day just how good morphine made you feel.

The injury had almost resulted in her discharge. It was nothing short of a miracle that she could return to duty after only a few months of leave with only a scar and a slight limp. Harper sighed as her thoughts came back to the present. Her knee didn’t hurt a bit, but it was the only sure fire way of discouraging Driscoll. He felt terribly guilty about the whole ordeal and never questioned her when she used her injury as an excuse. In fact, she’d probably have to deal with a fresh tidal wave of apologies from him later tonight, especially if he kept drinking. She tried not to remind Driscoll of the accident often, but sometimes she felt like she had no choice. She felt remorseful, but seeing the marked decrease in his exuberance gave her a small amount of perverse pleasure.
She drained the last of her drink and stood to leave. Driscoll saw her; he always seemed well in tuned to her movements, and called out. She pretended not to hear him and slipped out the door while she still had the chance. She headed back to the barracks, clenching her hands into fists to fight off the fine tremors that had begun to plague her.


“Heard you really passed out once you left last night O’Shea. I didn’t take you for that much of a light weight, I mean really, aren’t you Irish?” Driscoll teased her as they walked. Harper shrugged her shoulders and kept her eyes forward so he wouldn’t see the flinching look. “I was just tired. Insomnia.” He brushed off her excuse and kept talking. “You know what this means O’Shea. You have to come drinking until you can hold your liquor. An Irishman with your alcohol tolerance is downright shameful.” She sighed loudly like he expected of her. She knew for a fact that he had gotten completely smashed last night after she left, yet today he seemed no worse for it. Maybe he just hides it well. No, knowing him he doesn’t have so much as a headache, Harper thought resentfully. She retained her stony silence as they made their rounds. It was normal routine. They had the evening patrol, how he managed to get paired with her so often she had yet to figure out, and as they made their rounds he would talk her up. Sometimes she would engage him just to make him feel like he was making progress. Other times she would ignore him completely just to see how hard he would try before he gave up. She’d never gotten him to give up. In truth it was pleasant enough. Patrol was normally boring and uneventful. It helped to have someone to talk to, or listen to. Driscoll never seemed to get tired of the sound of his own voice.

Driscoll paused mid-sentence, an odd enough occurrence that Harper stopped and looked at him expectantly. She started when she heard what he had. Gun shots. Gun shots and laughter. She made an irritated noise in her throat and they turned in the appropriate direction, breaking into a jog.

It was coming from the bar. As the two rounded the corner they saw a man standing in a group, laughing loudly, his sidearm raised skyward. He fired two more shots and his friends roared with laughter. They were all obviously drunk. How the hell had he managed to smuggle the gun in three in the first place? It was one of the few times Harper had ever seen Driscoll angry. As carefree as the man was, he took his job seriously. “Sergeant James! You will relinquish your firearm now.” James walked over, stumbling slightly and squinted at the new arrivals. “Oh, hey Driscoll! What the fuck is up man? Hey guys! Driscoll is here!” Driscoll waved absently at the group, his attention on the drunk man with the gun. James clutched the weapon tightly, as though it would keep him from stumbling. “Sergeant, your gun.” He held out his hand to receive the weapon. “Huh? Oh! Sorry man, just got a little carried away!” James raised the pistol, too drunk to even consider handing it over grip first. As the gun came up, James swayed, his hand convulsing around the firearm in an attempt to not fall over.

Harper never actually heard the shot. Even later when she would replay the event in her mind, she never heard the shot. She saw the man fire the weapon, then saw pieces of Driscoll’s skull fall to the ground. The world moved in slow motion as Driscoll seemed to lean backwards and lose his footing, and ended up on his back. Of course that wasn’t happened, but that’s how it seemed to Harper. She wondered why the drunken soldiers didn’t start jeering at Driscoll’s lack of grace.

It wasn’t until she felt something wet and heavy sliding down her cheek that she clicked back into something nearer to reality. Driscoll was laying on the groud, half of the top part of his skull missing, blood and brain matter leaking out to mingle with the dirt. Sergeant James was sitting, gun lying innocently on the ground a few feet away. People around her were screaming, calling for help, giving her orders, but she found that despite all her medical training, all she could do was stare at the dead man at her feet. She knew he was dead without even checking, when a medic arrived and took his pulse, she almost laughed. Almost. She felt hands leading her away, trying to take her attention away from the scene, but she didn’t break eye contact with Driscoll until someone through a blanket over the body. But he won’t be able to see now. She felt something pressed into her hand, looked down and saw a rag. Vaguely she remembered her cheek. She wiped her face with the cloth. It came back bloody, with something more solid sticking to it. Upon seeing that, the full weight of the event broke through her shock. She turned and vomited, falling to her hands and knees. Tears streamed down her face as she emptied her stomach onto the grass. She began to shake uncontrollably.

Another soldier draped a blanket over her shoulders, only to have to thrown off in terror when Harper realized it was the same blanket they had used to cover Driscoll’s body. Her voice was high and panic stricken. “Driscoll? Driscoll! What the fuck Driscoll! This isn’t funny! Get the fuck up Driscoll!” she moved to the body and began to peel back the blanket, but it was hard, it was sticking to something wet underneath. Wait, blanket? Of course Harper, all the blankets look the same, it wasn’t actually the same blanket. Someone grabbed her from behind and dragged her back. “Wait! I’ve got to wake him up! Driscoll!” Her eyes began to make sense of the blood that the dirt was drinking up. “NO! no no no! JORDAN! GET UP JORDAN!” She fought the arms that held her, fought until she felt her muscles relax and her eyes flutter. Unable to ward off sleep, she slumped forward. She had never even felt the needle prick. As she drifted off to sleep all she could hear was Jordan’s voice in the back of her mind, Chill the fuck out O’Shea. I’m a goddamn national treasure. I’m not going anywhere. Then nothing but darkness.


Harper stared down at the body. She was alone in the small morgue, except for the body. It was a single room, adorned with stainless steel cabinets, a sink, and one wall bearing a handful of standard morgue drawers. The lighting was normally florescent and harsh, but today only a single safety light remained on, as it always did, casting dim flickering rays over the room. Typical medical supplies adorned the countertops, surgical tools sterilized and in their proper places. The room was everything a morgue was expected to be, clinical, stark, and depressing. Driscoll lay on the room’s only examination table, covered with a sheet. She had pulled it half way back, standing beside the table, eyes on the head wound. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights, that would make it seem too real. She didn’t want to see Driscoll’s olive skin looking waxy and fake, or give color to the devastating injury. She had already seen it all. The wound already seemed to snarl at her, huge and gaping wide with jagged teeth. She had seen it all a hundred times in her dreams, and it had only been two days. She stood in lonely stillness and stared.

Her dreams didn’t quite match up with actual events, though she had yet to realize it. She didn’t remember how desperate she had been, how panicked, how stricken . In her dreams, she stood to the side and watched as the shot was fired. It didn't make a sound, that much stayed the same. She was merely an observer, like it was just a bad movie. It wasn’t cold detachment; she was, after all, human. Harper felt alarm and fear, the kind any soldier would feel when seeing a man go down, but it was distant. She watched as the gun went off, smoke curling from the barrel, she watched as Driscoll fell to the ground, bits of skull and brain matter landing around him. She watched as his blood fed the ground, knowing she could do nothing for him. She knelt beside him, looking in his eyes, but making no move to help save the dying man. Half of his skull was missing, there wouldn't have been much of a point. Remarkably, he was dying and not dead, looking up at her with something that resembled his usual ingratiating grin, but wilted around the edges. His lips moved but no sound came out. He spoke, but Harper could hear nothing past the roaring in her ears, the sound that absolute silence makes. The scene was deathly quiet. There were no screams, no pounding of feet, nothing. She was not deaf; there was just no sound. She knew she should be hearing it, but there was nothing; nothing but the impossibly thunderous silence. It filled her ears and drowned out his voice. It was always the same way in her dreams. He spoke to her, and then he died. At that point she either woke up, or the dream began again. It was amazing how many times you could have the same dream in one night.

In the back of her mind she knew that wasn’t how it happened. He had been dead before he hit the ground. There had been no last words. She also knew that she had reacted strongly, perhaps violently, why else would she have been sedated? But all these thoughts were pushed back to the brink of her unconscious mind. It made no sense to her why she would have hysterics over a man she couldn’t stand, so it couldn’t be true. The event had been traumatic, a man shot to death in front of her. That was what bothered her. Her reaction had nothing to do with the fact that Jordan Driscoll was dead.

You know that’s not true O’Shea.
She ignored the thought. Ignored the voice and ignored the tears that coursed down her cheeks in steady streams. Serves you right you arrogant bastard. Everyone still loves you, you know. No doubt you’ll be given a hero’s funeral, hero’s funeral for getting shot in the fucking head by a goddamn drunk. She scowled, the action undermined by a fresh wave of tears that dripped onto the metal morgue table. She stood there for awhile in silence, looking at him, thinking nothing, telling herself she felt nothing, nothing but anger. She noticed no one had taken his dog tag yet. Both tags lay against his chest, glinting dully in the shine of the single safety light. A terrible idea struck her. Can’t give you a proper funeral if they don’t know who you are can they Driscoll? Never thought it would end like that did you? The man everyone loves, wants to be, or be with, ending up in an anonymous grave? She leaned forward, carefully releasing the catch on the chain and lifting the tags.

C’mon O’Shea, you know that won’t work. This isn’t a battlefield; just admit why you’re really taking the tags.

Harper made a frustrated grunt and pushed the thought aside violently. Harper slipped the chain over her neck, tucking the tags into her shirt. They clinked softly against her own tags and she jumped as they touched her skin. God they were cold. Taking one last look at her dead friend, she slowly pulled the sheet back over the body and tried not to notice how it sagged inward over the right side of his head. This is what you deserve Driscoll. Now maybe you’ll leave me the fuck alone. Absently wiping at the tears dripping off her chin, she turned and walked out of the morgue. But his voice whispered in the back of her mind. Not likely O’Shea. Not fucking likely.

February 18, 2010

Going after Citysmith

((((Players Note: Brotherhood of Betrayal has gone on hiatus for awhile. We are taking a break to play Exalted (Gio's player is running it!) for awhile and give our story teller a brain break. We will return soon, never fear! We're all too addicted to it to leave it alone for too long. In the meantime, we will be shakin' up Creation with crazy power of tiny gods! Keep checking back, because I will keep updating the blog weekly with stories from the past that have never been posted! Once we start WoD again, I will return to the regularly scheduled storyline. Thanks!))))

We stopped Giovanni in the parking lot. He doesn't move too fast. He wasn't happy that we all wanted to go, but he didn't really fight it either.

We picked up Nadi from Nick's place on the way over. When we arrived at the Santore compound the guards recognized the car and just waved us in. I noticed that they were packing more heat than usual. When we walked into the house it was alive with activity. Tiny was issuing orders, people were running about, everyone was armed.. they weren't messing around. We headed straight up to see Bella.

"So you need me to play patsy then?" We'd barely gotten in the door before she'd started talking.
"Something like that. We need to talk to her. She has information about our serial killer." Gio affirmed.
Bella nodded and started pacing. It wasn't so much a nervous pace as an excited one. Her aura screamed with anticipation. As she and Gio talked, the big window behind her bubbled outward..I took a step back in surprise, then relaxed as Sansome stepped out of it, leaving the window completely in tact.

He was dressed for war. Scars and tattoos were center stage, with nothing but a loincloth to cover himself. Giant knife drawn, and other useful items hanging from his waist. He didn't even slightly resemble an aging man. He looked like a warrior. He voice was gruff, but had a similar anticipatory edge to it. "The spirits on the east side are rioting. It will be a good opportunity."
Bella grinned and nodded. "Good. We don't have long. If the Whispers already know whats going on, they'll raise the alarm. We have a few hours, tops, before her little world comes crashing down on her."
"How are we planning on prying the information out of her?" Nobody asked.
I had been thinking about that very problem. "I can get into her head, but there's no guarantee I'll be able to find it.."
Sansome pulled out a small carved bone and handed it to Ori. "When she's dead, break this. Ravens will come and eat her eyes and tell you what she saw."
I frowned, that wasn't good enough for me. "Just what she saw? This guy is very good at obscuring supernatural sights.."
Sansome's jaw twitched at my objection. "If all else fails, use that."

That resolved (more or less..), Bella looked us with positively hungry eyes. "We're heading out. You guys ready?"

We were, we'd prepared before heading over.

Sansome walked out the door. "I need to go stir up more trouble."

We piled into the cars (Ori, Becca, and Nadi with me, Nobody and Bella with Giovanni.) As we were getting in I heard Bella dialing Citysmith.
"Bella.. you're side of town is in a bit of an uproar..." Her tone was reminiscent of Birch's.
"That's what I'm calling about. " Bella paused, making all the appropriate noises of hating herself for doing this. She was a good actress. Her voice sounded downright sick, like the words made her feel nauseous. "I need your help."
There was a pause where you could practically hear Citysmith smirk. "Let's see if you're strong enough to get here." And she hung up.

Bella grinned and jumped into the car. We followed behind them. I let Becca drive. Ori gave me a weird look when I got into the back seat with him. "I need a favor."
"Uhh..okay?" He said, completely caught off guard.
I held up four empty vials I'd grabbed from my med kit. "I need refills. Just in case." I kept my face neutral. He looked pretty damn uncomfortable.
"Uhh..shit.. um.. okay I guess.. I have a knife if.."
I gave a slight smile and produced a syringe as well.
"Just don't make me a pin cushion." Ori muttered and held out his arm.
I snorted, annoyed. "Ori, I was good at this when I was alive..." I slipped the needle in effortlessly, no need to even feel for veins, or ask him to make a fist. He didn't even feel it. He looked up at me, surprised.
"Now, I know where all your veins and arteries are. I can smell them." I continued. He paled a bit, and it wasn't from blood loss.

I got to work filling my vials. "I won't take too much.. don't want to make you woozy.. though you probably regenerate it pretty damn fast." I tucked the still warm glass into my coat.
Nadi turned around in the front seat and offered her arm. "You can have some of mine too, if you need it."
It was one of those rare moments that I was thankful for the people I ran around with, instead of incredibly annoyed. "I appreciate it.. but I've never had mage blood before..I don't know what it will do to me."
The corner of her mouth twitched slightly. "Never know until you try.."
"This may not..." Oh..what the fuck. I just shrugged and grabbed a new needle. Fuck it. It wouldn't hurt to have extras, I could deal with the consequences. I only took two vials from her. She healed slower than Ori.
"So what happens when you drink my blood?" Ori asked as he watched me play phlebotomist.
I answered him without looking up. "I get very, very angry.."

My phone rang before anyone could comment further. It was Giovanni's number so I put it on speaker.
"Okay," Bella said. "She's going to make it difficult for us to get to her. We'll have to fight our way through."
"Since we're still keeping up the facade, how much force can we use?" I asked.
"Cripple.. incapacitate if necessary.. don't kill anyone unless you have too.. yet."
I heard Nobody mutter in protest in the background. "I want to kill more werewolves. I'm getting good at it." is what it sounded like.
Bella ignored him and continued. "There are a few things to remember. You're strength is in your numbers. If one of them runs, DON'T give chase. I don't care how injured they look. Do not let yourself get separated from the group. They WILL be leading you into a trap. This is their turf, and they probably have a lot of nasty tricks. So stay together, watch your backs, and be ready."

We drove the rest of the way in tense silence. I was worried about going up against werewolves.. but I was more worried that our plan wouldn't work.. that we wouldn't get the information that we needed out of Citysmith. I was aching to get my hands on that serial killer. We finally had another lead.. and we were going there to kill her. It was a pretty sticky situation. The rest of the vision Ori and I had was also still running through my head. The blood sweeping away the figures on the ground.. the black shadow that cut through the entire scene.. it was a bit disconcerting. However, I also didn't believe that the future was set in stone. If it was, whats the point of even trying?

The building was eerily quiet when we pulled up. It towered above us like a dark sentinel. As creepy as it was, and as difficult the next few minutes were about to be, everyone standing outside that building had a look of determined anticipation.

We approached the front and paused a few feet from the door, weapons drawn. We could see inside and noticed two vague shadows dart behind the sign that stood in the lobby.
Nadi pointed above the door, about 8 feet, speaking softly. "One there, on the wall, two behind the sign."
We would have looked surprised were we not so focused.
"Mage voodoo wins again." Giovanni muttered. "Ori, think you can hit him through the wall?"
Ori shrugged his very illegal rifle off his shoulder and took aim. "One way to find out.." Nadi directed him to exactly where the werewolf was waiting to spring on us, and the sound of his weapon was deafening in the stillness.

I smelled it before to hit the floor, a few drops of blood where a couple of the rounds had managed to punch through the exterior wall and hit the would be ambusher.
"He's gone. I can't tell where he went." Nadi said after a moment of scanning the area.

Bella and Ori took the front. Nadi, Gio and Becca the middle, and Nobody and I took the rear. I thought about making the whole room pitch dark, but only 3 of us would be able to see. It didn't seem wise to cripple ourselves as well as them. Bella paused in the doorway, crouching down to rub two fingers in the blood and putting them to her tongue. "Mahudi." She said quietly.

We slipped inside. When we entered the building, shit hit the fan pretty damn quick.

The first attack actually came from behind us. A large wolf bounded out of the shadows and lunged at Nobody. It was too fast for even the agile changeling, and it managed to lock its jaws on his calf muscle. He let out a muffled scream. At the same time, a man stepped out of the shadows and glared at Ori. His voice was deep and commanding. "Stand Down."

Ori was no coward, but that caused even him to lower his rifle a touch. I was pretty certain it was werewolf voodoo because Ori seemed to be trying to hit the shit out of the guy, but his body just wouldn't listen. His muscles were trembling with effort to overcome the compulsion. Meanwhile, Giovanni had responded quickly to Nobody's scream, turned, shoving his end of the shotgun barrel into the offending wolf and blasting the ever loving SHIT out of it. The force of the rounds tore it away from Nobody, taking some of his leg with it and leaving a messy hole in the wolf's side.

Two things happened nearly at once. The man was so focused on dominating Ori, that he never even saw Becca coming. She slammed the tire iron into the back of his head so hard that I heard his skull crack. Her muscles were larger than normal and shaking with the force of the blow. The look on her face was pure terror. Thank God her reaction to fear was to beat the fuck out of it.

That distraction was all Ori needed. He apparently could still attack other targets, because he swung around and popped off a couple shots at the wolf as it took off down the hallway with a hole in its side and part of Nobody's calf in its teeth, leaving a thick trail of his and its blood on the marble floors.

The man recovered enough to clutch his head and follow the wolf. "Don't follow him." I barked, kneeling beside Nobody and pulling out first aid supplies.
"Duh.." Gio rolled his eyes at me. Bella took careful aim with one of the largest handguns I'd ever seen, pulled the trigger, and it was as though just the roar of the gun caused the retreating man's calf muscle to nearly explode outwards. He went down screaming.

It all happened so fast that I never had the chance to fire a shot. How disappointing. Thankfully, we still had a lot of distance to cover. I pulled Nobody to his feet. "You should be good for awhile."
He slowly put weight on the leg, and nodded brief thanks when it held. It must've hurt like hell, but he didn't let it show. The only telling sign was a slight shortness of breath and tiny beads of perspiration on his face. He'd have a scar almost like mine, from when a rampaging werewolf war machine decided to taste my kidneys.

The elevator let out a soft 'ding' as it landed on the ground floor. We all whirled, weapons at ready. But when the doors slid silently open, it was empty.

"There's no way we're going to take the fucking elevator." Nobody said with a wince.
Bella looked at his leg and shrugged, and stepped into the elevator. "You can't make it up that many flights. This building has close to 100 floors. Elevator is the best way to go."
Nobody muttered under his breath but limped into the elevator car, the rest of us followed looking equally skeptical.. but the woman had a point. Once inside, we started heading up to the top floor.

Everytime we passed a floor, everyone would tense, waiting for those doors to open. After a few floors, Ori got tired of it and undid the top hatch and climbed out onto the roof of the car as we went up... and it was a good thing he did.

"Spirits!" He yelled, letting the rifle swing on its strap onto his back and drawing his Skrima sticks in one smooth motion. Gio, Nobody and I pulled our goggles down over our eyes. The two spirits were very insubstantial, even in their world. Indistinct faces screamed down towards Ori with bodies and hands made from mist. One dive bombed Ori, and he didn't have enough room in the narrow shaft to dodge it. He stumbled backwards, his face a mask of pain, but still managed to bring the sticks down on its hazy figure as it swooped by. It shrieked in pain and flew back up into the shaft, circling around for another attack.

Little pricks. I drew my sidearm, popped the clip and let it slide out as I slammed another one home. I didn't bother to catch it. Becca snatched it from the air before it hit the ground and dropped it back in my coat as I took careful aim. I wasn't out of ammo, I just needed different bullets. The moment Ori stepped out of my line of fire, I lined up my shot and pulled the trigger almost simultaneously.

The phased rounds aren't loud when leaving the chamber. Two thick blue tracers and a quiet popping noise accompanied the shot. Ori jumped back with a shout of surprise as the special rounds hit their mark and tore clean through one of the spirits. The spirit screamed and exploded in a hazy fog. Thank you, Taskforce Valkyrie.
"Holy SHIT." Ori exclaimed, right before the other spirit dove at him and clocked him in the side of the head so hard that blood oozed down around his ear. He grit his teeth, eyes flashing red, and buried his weapons in the spirits face as it tried to escape. The fog only took a few seconds to dissipate.

Meanwhile, the elevator was slowing. We all tensed. Ori called down to us that the door on the 45th floor had just opened at the same moment that the elevator came to a stop on the 35th floor.

Then we were attacked from two sides at once. The doors slid open to reveal a hallway, full of those same air spirits, and Mahudi standing behind them all. The same moment, we heard something slam into Ori and the entire elevator bounced. Apparently one of the Architects had jumped from 10 stories up and used Ori as his safety net.

And the smell of rotting flesh reached our nostrils. Someone grunted in pain, and it wasn't Ori. Nadi was staring intently up through the top hatch and working her mage voodoo.

The rest of us were focused on that hallway. Without so much as a glance between us, I dropped down on one knee, below Giovanni's line of fire, lined up the shot, and popped off two more ghostly rounds. Gio's shotgun was deafening in the small space. We were rewarded by two spirits immediately disintegrating.
The others charged us, but came up short, launching pieces of themselves at us like spiritual bullets. I felt the shrapnel bite into my face and hands, but neither Giovanni or I even flinched. We just lined up our next shot.

A knife whizzed past my head, from behind me. I had a moment to recognize it as Nobody's before I saw it land home, right into Mahudi's bicep. The look on his face said it struck pretty hard. His expression contorted with anger and pain and I heard the blade scrape bone as he yanked it out and returned it to Nobody, propelling it directly into the changelings shoulder. Nobody yelped in pain. I knew who I'd be patching up all fucking night. Jesus.

"This is pretty ballsy of you." A male voice said from the roof of the elevator car, tinged with pain.. what the fuck had Nadi done? We could still smell rotting flesh.
Ori's voice was little more than a snarl, even though he retained his human form. "Fuck you!"
"Dinner first." I could practically hear the Architect tensing for an attack.

I heard the distinctive sound of a bone snapping and something heavy falling on the roof of the car. Then, the entire car shook and the ceiling folded inward as Ori brought both sticks down in a massive blow to his fallen opponent, who, judging by the dent, probably managed to dodge. This theory was confirmed by the rage strangled scream Ori let loose.

But we were too focused on the hallway to do much about it. Bella walked out of the elevator and straight towards the spirits. Her hands were no longer human. Her fingers had lengthened and now ended in wicked claws that glinted silver in the dim hall lights. She sliced through the remaining spirits with practiced precision and ease. Once they were all nothing but mist she stared Mahudi down. He returned her gaze with equal intensity. We heard her snarl something in their weird animalistic language, one word.

We watched, poised and ready for an attack, as Mahudi's lip curled in disgust. He spat on the ground and responded in normal speech. "If there's anything left, I get to kill her." And he turned and walked away.

Everyone stepped out of the elevator. It was busted to shit, and sure as hell wasn't going anywhere. I patched up Nobody's shoulder. Ori's face, body language, and aura pulsated with barely suppressed rage. We all moved towards the stairwell and he only paused long enough to kick the door off its fucking hinges.

"Ori, calm the fuck down." I said with a frown.
The look he gave me was not friendly. "He fucking dive bombed me, then disappeared. I think I have the right to be a little pissed."
I shrugged and walked past him, up the stairs. "I'll make you a deal, if you don't frenzy all over us, neither will I." He didn't respond, just stomped up the stairs after me.

We made it up the rest of the stairs pretty quickly, all of us were in pretty good shape (or in my case, didn't use their lungs anyway). Giovanni had draped one arm over my shoulders and I made sure we kept up.

The three of the four members of the Architects were waiting for us when we reached the top. Mahudi was no where to be seen.
"Impressive." Said the one who had dive bombed Ori. He gestured to the large double doors that presumably led into Citysmith's office. Some of the built up tension in my chest eased. They still hadn't figured out why we were really here. This might actually work.

Now or never. When we walked through those double doors, Citysmith was standing in front of the giant window, overlooking Chicago, hands clasped behind her back. She was immaculately dressed, long blond hair plaited into a braid down her back. She watched our reflections in the window, but didn't turn around.

"East side is in quite an uproar. Can't handle your territory Santore?" Her voice was pretty damn snide.
Bella grit her teeth in effort to maintain her composure. "That's why we're here."
"Tell me..why I shouldn't just let it all crumble around you, then step in and pick up the pieces?" Citysmith's reflection looked smug and amused in the glass.
"Because it would make you look weak, that you couldn't help her with the spirits." Giovanni said.
She gave a humorless laugh. "You take me for a Storm Lord? Talking to me about looking weak?"
"What, think it will be too much for you?" Nobody mocked. Her jaw tightened in annoyance.

I took the opportunity to do a little digging. I let the others talk around her, keep her off guard, I slipped into her mind and dug around in her thoughts. I looked for information on the serial killer. When Nobody got his jab in I heard her think, "Go ahead, play your little games. In the end, he'll kill you all, and I'll pick up the pieces." She was planning on sending the killer at us. I needed to keep her talking so I could keep digging. "You'll help because it will prove you're the better leader. It will prove that they had to come to you to secure their territory. If you don't help, maybe it's because you couldn't.. which makes you no better than them." I said, expression deadly serious. Her thoughts began to boil and froth at the suggestion and her aura was ablaze with rage, indignation.. and something else that did not bode well for us. Suspicion.

Her eyes unfocused for a moment and she frowned slightly. She turned and looked past us into the hallway of the penthouse, giving a subtle jerk of the head. The other three pack members followed the unspoken order and headed to the stairwell. I really hoped the other werewolves hadn't shown up yet. We weren't done.

That suspicion was growing by the second, and I had yet to find anything on the killer's identity in her head. Her thoughts were becoming too chaotic.
Her eyes narrowed and focused on Bella. "You have Sansome. you don't need me when you have him. So why are you really here?" This was about to get very, very ugly. I pulled a knife soundlessly from its hidden sheath, holstering the gun. Citysmith didn't so much as flick her eyes in my direction.
Bella's mask of bitter resignation shifted into a devious grin, but it was Giovanni who answered. "Oh we need your help, just not with the spirits on the East side."

I saw it dawn on her in three different ways all at once. Her facial expression twisted itself into a nasty snarl, made even more grotesque by the beauty of the face on which it sat, her aura flared even more brightly, and her thoughts were a cauldron of rage. She knew.

Almost faster than I could follow, Citysmith threw a hand at Bella, thousands of barbs materializing from nothing and burying themselves into Bella's flesh. Blood spewed from the grievous wounds, painting the white walls. Bella fell slowly to her knees, then slumped forward onto the marble floor, unconscious. That single attack had nearly been the end of her. This was about to get messy.

Giovanni's eyes flashed blood red, his lips contorting into an arrogant sneer. "Really? Lamashtu?" those small words carried with them a wealth of insult and condescending malice.
Citysmith's beauty was gone, her face was a mask of malice and wrath. "You're one to talk!" She spat at him.
"I AM! What did you get out of it? To be young and beautiful forever?" His voice was booming and thick with scorn. "Where's the PRIDE in that?"

"I'LL SHOW YOU!" Citysmith shrieked at him, throwing more of the deadly barbs in his direction. But Giovanni didn't so much as flinch. His muscles rippled and he let his cane fall to the ground. He grew two feet taller and huge black wings tore themselves from the flesh of his back to spread out behind his shoulders. He just stared at her as the bards bit into his body. He was bleeding, but the attack had proven less effective this time around. And when she met his gaze, I saw her rage waver, colors of fear, contempt, guilt and pain crashed through her aura. But her pride won out in the end. Giovanni's penetrating gaze wouldn't stop that.

But it provided the rest of us with the opportunity to act. I tried one last time to read her mind, but it was too chaotic to get anything out of it. So, fuck it.

"Why send him to do your dirty work Citysmith?" Her eyes flicked to me, but she didn't bother with an answer. She thought I was too far beneath her to warrant one. She was standing between me and the serial killer, and I'd be damned again if I was going to let this arrogant bitch stop me.

But I also had no intention of getting within range of her claws if I could help it. I raised a hand, preparing to throw my blade straight into her heart. I flooded my system with vitae and felt my pupils consume the rest of my eyes. The darkness was my play thing. In the milliseconds I had to attack, I feinted instead. The shadow that I threw at her looked almost fucking three dimensional. It darted in from her periphery, and would prove to be absolutely harmless, in and of itself.

But Citysmith didn't know that. She caught the new movement from the corner of her eye just as I'd intended and whirled to face the unknown menace... that wasn't there. And without so much as a glance from me, Ori took advantage of the distraction. He lunged for her, and the blur of olive green and yellow cloth became a blur of tan and black fur. By the time he reached his target, he was an 8 foot tall, fanged killing machine. He clamped those wicked fangs down directly on Olivia Citysmith's throat and didn't let go. Blood gushed from the wounds.

It was nothing short of miraculous that he didn't snap her neck in one blow. No, instead, she flew into a frenzied rage. Ori was now sinking his teeth into the furred neck of another, equally as terrifying 8 foot death machine who's single minded focus was to KILL EVERYTHING. She raked razor sharp claws down Ori's back, tearing it to bloody ribbons.

But he wouldn't let go.

She was so far gone, so focused on the immediate threat, no longer anything but a mindless, murderous monster, that I don't think she ever saw Nadi step in closer.

Like I said before, none of them are cowards. Nadi darted towards the two werewolves and grabbed Citysmith's furred forearm even as she mangled Ori's flesh. Her attacks lost a bit of their ferocity and I could see some of her muscles visibly shrivel.

But we weren't even close to done with her yet. Nobody had gone to Bella and done quick patch and fix work while we'd been dealing with Citysmith, but he still wanted a piece of the bitch.
"It's really not smart to fuck with an assassin's friend you arrogant twat." A knife materialized in his hand, gleaming silver and he vaulted towards the monster, sinking the blade into her heart. She was too busy weakly clawing at Ori, there was no way she'd be able to parry Nobody's attack. At the same moment, Giovanni propelled himself forward with his massive wings and buried another silver blade into her spine, dragging it down her back.

It wasn't until she went completely lifeless and limp that Ori gave his jaws one violent shake, snapping her spine for good measure, and threw her to the marble floor like a piece of trash. She'd reverted to her human form before she landed.

Bella's blood spattered the walls, but Citysmith's blood flooded the floor and dripped off our hands. Or muzzles, as the case may be. Ori snarled at the dead bale hound, eyes aflame with bloodlust. We stood over Citysmith, and smiled. Who's beneath whom now, you self absorbed, egotistical cunt?

"ORI!" I snapped, ignoring the beast roaring in my ears. "The raven." He looked at me, not understanding. He was already beginning to melt back into a more human shape. His words were distorted by rearranging vocal cords. "What?"

Giovanni rolled his eyes and crouched down, using a clean edge of Citysmith's shirt to wipe his blade clean. "The bone Sansome gave you. And hurry the fuck up. Harper, the computer."

I was one step ahead of him, already moving towards the desk.
"Oh! Right." Ori dug into his pocket and pulled out the carved bone, easily breaking it into two pieces. I slipped my goggles back on and watched as a huge spirit raven appeared.
"What do you call for?" It asked in a strangely commanding voice. Ori pointed to the corpse. "We need to know what she knew."
The raven landing on Citysmith's body and plucked her eyes out like it was picking fruit from a tree. It swallowed them whole, then turned its beak towards Ori. "What knowledge do you seek?"
"Everything she knew about the serial killer that she was working with."

It tilted its head as though in thought, like birds do. We were so close. The seconds that the raven paused seemed like an eternity to me, even as I focused on the computer screen.
"It does not matter. He is here." And the raven disappeared.

We whirled, weapons still in hand, as a door opened on the other side of the office. A sickly yellow light cast grotesque shadows on the floor. Ray Fawkes stepped into the room, left hand held high in the air, no longer a stump, arrogant sneer plastered across his face. The hand cast the light in all directions.

The serial killer was standing 10 feet away from me, and all I could do was stare at that fucking, piece of shit, god forsaken, hand.

"You IDIOTS! You just don't get it do you?!"

All of us were frozen in place. I felt the beast thrashing wildly inside my head, and for once, it and I were in perfect accord.

Ray swaggered towards us, pausing next to Citysmith's body. He stroked her cheek with the back of his hand. "She wasn't finished yet. She was so close..." He turned his attention back to us, stalking forward. "You're all idiots. Insignificant idiots. And now, I win again." He jeered. My muscles were shaking, but all I could do was stand in place, and stare. "And there's nothing you can do about it."

No. nonono. How could we get so close only to lose him again? I fought it, pushed and raged against the bonds that held my body captive. Nothing worked. As long as that hand was raised in front of me, I was rapt.

Help came from a very unexpected source.
"Silly human... you're stealing my tricks." A very familiar voice said from behind us. Ray's head snapped in that direction and his eyes widened in panicked surprise. "What?! how?! You can't do that!"

The man that strode past us was dressed in a floor length white fur coat that drank the blood from the marble tiles. He held long blade in hand. He wore the intricately carved golden claws, and the heavy golden mask of the Lancea Sanctum over his face. Solomon Birch raised the blade and neatly cleaved the glowing hand from a backpedaling Ray Fawkes.

That was all we needed. With the hand gone, Ray looked at us, arrogance stained with fear, and Gio gave him a taste of his own medicine. Ray stared dumbly into Gio's eyes and began to shake uncontrollably. I didn't bother reading his aura, his mind, or anything else.

I took two long strides and grabbed the insolent bastard by the throat. My fingers dug into the flesh around his Adams apple like a vice. I pulled him against me and sank fangs deep into his carotid artery. As his hot blood poured down my chin and neck, into my mouth and down my throat, the beast snarled in dark ecstasy. I ripped his Adams apple out with my fingers, and tore my fangs through his carotid and out the front of his body. Blood sprayed. I knew the moment he died, which came much sooner than I'd expected, the same moment I tore out his fucking throat. He didn't die from bleeding out, he just died. I threw him away from me like a piece of discarded garbage, tossing his larynx to land beside him with a wet plop. Nadi finished a series of hand gestures.. she looked to be cutting thread.

My satisfaction was far from detached or civilized. It was impossible to tell if the overwhelming feeling of intense carnal victory stemmed from my rational mind or the beast.. and I didn't damn well care. I basked in it, licking his blood off my fingers, and for once, didn't bother shoving the beast back in it's cage. It curled up inside my skull, sated, for now.

(((player's note: Humanity dropped to 6. Finally.)))

Ori poked Ray's body with the tip of his boot. "Hey Birch. Your coat is gay."

"I might just curl up and die, heaven forbid the dirty ingun doesn't like my coat." Birch lifted the mask off of his face. "Well, my end of the deal is done." His eyes were missing. That's how he had avoided the effects of the hand. It looked like he'd gouged them out.

Giovanni smirked and limped over to the chair that used to belong to Citysmith and settled into it, propping his feet up on the desk.

I narrowed my eye at Birch, wiping blood off my face. "What deal?"

He was so practiced at being a dick that he managed to give me a condescending and incredulous look even with no eyes. "You really don't get it do you? Not really a student of genetics then huh?"

The anger was too close to the surface to not flare up instantly. Fine tremors ran through my hands as I clenched them into fists.

"The dark hair and eyes.. stature.. all carefully engineered for this specific task.. and you really can't figure it out."

He was mocking me, which wasn't anything unusual, but I was sick and tired of his games. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, a suspicious that I knew exactly what he meant, but he wouldn't stop with the exposition.

"I made a deal to come in at this point.. to suffer the pain of it, and in return I get to add to my livestock. This was all planned out a long time ago, and it's finally come to a head.."

I just lost it then. I was tired of his grandstanding, his half veiled comments, and his very presence. Tired of the knowledge that the situation had just been saved by this god damned piece of shit. So I cut him off. "Will you just fucking SAY IT?!" I screamed at him.

His jaw clenched tight in annoyance and he sneered at me, speaking through gritted teeth. "Really? This plan has been in the works for over 60 years and you can't wait 5 fucking minutes? You really are such a disappointment." He turned and walked out of the giant office. As he did, he called back over his shoulder. "Don't get too comfortable in that chair. It doesn't belong to you."

"Oh, I know." Gio laced his fingers together behind his head and reclined further.

I stared after Birch as he sauntered out of the room, staring holes in the back of his head to match the ones in the front. He hadn't ever said it, but I knew what he'd been talking about. But what I didn't know, were the details. So I stared into his head. I wasn't just glaring angrily (though there was that too) I was reading his thoughts.. and aside from thinking about how useless he found me, he was thinking about the entire plan.

The entire plan that Giuseppe had put into motion over 60 years ago. He had taken a play from Birch's book and bred a line of people who would prove susceptible to Lamashtu's influence, he actually bred arrogance into the line. How? by using people like Thomas Matheson in the stock combined with people he'd rescued from Auschwitz during World War II. It took decades before any of them actually made the deal with the majlin. It had to be Lamashtu in order to get at Citysmith. Ray's deal with the majlin had been to preform the murders, to get rid of people in Citysmith's way.. and Giuseppe had helped him. Giuseppe had set up the bargain, and helped him with the murders. He had wrapped us up in it in order to get us invested, get us involved enough to go after Citysmith. He'd killed the security guard in order to hurt us, to keep us interested. He'd killed Louie and left him for us to find. That's how the killer knew things about it he shouldn't. Giuseppe was feeding him information. Giuseppe had been pulling the strings. We'd been played.

All of it was to ultimately destroy Citysmith and put the Santores on the throne of Chicago.

As I stared after Birch, mind seething and churning with all the unpleasant information, others started to arrive. Bella woke up and Sansome walked into the room, along with a few other Santores. Ori had gone over to the large painting on the wall and was staring at it. Giovanni stood and held out the chair for Bella.

"She had the pack totem chained to the painting.. I couldn't see the chains before." Ori said.
Sansome nodded and stood beside him. "She's the only Ithaeur in the pack. She hid it well."
"Can we free it? And will it attack us if we do?" Ori asked.
Sansome smiled. "We can try, and there's only one way to find out."
He stepped forward and used that huge ass knife to slice right through the spiritual chains on the painting. And a big fucking spirit jumped out. It looked like a gigantic ant with an intricately carved metal carapace, roughly the size of a double decker bus. The thing was huge. I had my gun unholstered and pointed at it's forehead in less than a second, waiting for it start shit. I was not in the mood. It could probably eat me for lunch, but right now, I didn't give a shit. I was almost hoping it would attack us.

The spirit and I stared at each other. I was the only one in the room with a weapon drawn. A low growl trickled from its throat as it watched me, but it sounded more like a controlled demolition explosion, or heavy equipment being moved, rather than an animal growl. I inhaled deeply, attempting to let some of the aggression flow out of me on the exhale, and holstered my gun. Once my weapon was gone, the spirit ignored me.

It tilted its head to one side and regarded the werewolves in the room. It said something, I think, but its voice was like the growl- construction noises. The only way I could even figure it was speaking words was because as it fell silent, Bella stood up, palms planted on the desk.
"I wi.."
"Sit down..."
Her head snapped to the door, and we all saw old Vittorio in his motorized wheelchair come rolling into the room. He inhaled deeply from his oxygen mask before setting it in his lap. He looked up at the massive spirit without a trace of fear or hesitation, and his voice became less old and frail, and more authoritative and deep. It was his real voice, not shrouded in the costume of frailty. "I will take the seat."

The spirit made more weird noises in Vittorio's direction, and vanished.

I didn't really pay close attention to the rest of it. The Santores started their clean up.

"Thank you for your help. We owe you." Vittorio said, looking at all of us. The tone of the gratitude was genuine. I wondered how much of the plan Vittorio had been aware of.
"We have a lot of work to do, if you would excuse us." The old man said. It was fine with me. I wanted to get the fuck out of there and find Giuseppe. "If you'd stay for a moment, Grigori." Vittorio requested.

Bella walked out with us. As we left, we saw Vittorio get up from his chair, discarding the oxygen tank and stand tall in front of the large window. He inhaled deeply and smiled as he looked out over his city. It was the first time any of us had seen him abandon the charade of debilitating age.

Giovanni smirked at Bella. "I told you it was an act."
Bella shook her head in mild disbelief. "That crafty bastard."
"C'mon, an old werewolf?" Gio teased her.

The doors shut behind us. We waited briefly for Ori to come back out. He exited just a few minutes later, smiling slightly and looking a little sheepish. "Vittorio wants us at dinner tomorrow night." He said as he caught up to us.

"All of us?" I asked


Giovanni slapped Ori on the back as we headed to the stairs. "Welcome to the family."

Ah.. that made a certain amount of sense. Up until now, Ori had been packless, which, from what I could gather, wasn't a great way for most werewolves to be.

We headed back to the shop. I avoided conversation. Everyone but me seemed to be in rather high spirits. Even though the others probably inferred the same from Birch that I knew for certain, that Giuseppe had been behind the whole fucking fiasco, no one but me seemed all that upset.

I would have thought I'd be angry with him.. disgusted by the murders.. but that wasn't it at all. I understand why he did it. What bothered me was that he felt the need to fuck with us to get our attention. He didn't trust me enough to tell me a damn fucking thing, and that stung. If he had just asked me, I would have gone after Citysmith.

This is what I was thinking when we entered the shop to find Giuseppe sitting at one of the work tables, pouring over old manuscripts. But I didn't say anything to him..not yet. I had no desire to air my grievances in front of everyone. So I leaned back against the wall, face as neutral as I could manage.

"Evening." Gio said as he walked over to examine what Giuseppe was working on.
"Good evening. I take it your night has been productive?"
"You could say that." Gio said with a smirk.

Giuseppe looked up from his work, up at all of us. His eyes stayed on me a moment longer than the rest, but only a moment, then he looked back at Nadi.

"So what will you do now?"
"Continue my studies." I detected a hint of displeasure in Nadi's voice, but it was always so difficult to tell with her.
"Will you still try to pursue mundane education, or have you found there are things more important? Secrets of the world you can't learn in the University? Will you still try to earn that sheepskin?" Giuseppe asked her.
"I think they use paper now." Nadi replied dryly. Giuseppe responded with a small smirk.
"He was my friend, you know." Ah, definitely displeasure. Glad to know I wasn't the only one.
He gave a small shrug "Maybe he was, at one point. But he thought himself better than you. He had feelings for you, but even then you were still beneath him."
To that, Nadi did not respond.

So he turned his attention to Nobody.
"And Nobody, what will you do?"
"I need to find a dragon.. and deal with a sword in the stone. Plus, you now owe me TWO favors."
Giuseppe's face was a mask of condescending sarcasm. "Why ever do you think I owe you such a thing? I signed no contract."
Nobody suddenly looked pissed and annoyed. "You said yourself you owed me one at least." But Giuseppe was right, he'd never made a contract with the changeling, and Nobody knew it.
Giuseppe just smirked and gave a non committal shrug.

I just watched him, arms crossed, looking none too happy. I managed not to glare, but my displeasure was evident. He just quirked a brow at me. "Really, Harper."
"Can I talk with you in private please?" I asked finally.

I pushed off the wall and walked into the kitchen. He followed, sitting on the edge of the table as I paced the length of the room a few times. I grabbed a damp towel and started trying to get the residual blood off my face and neck, the clothing was a lost cause. I looked at Giuseppe over the towel. He was watching me with an utter lack of concern.
"So when do I get to know what your thinking?" I asked finally. "Or do I have to be your unwitting assistant forever?"
He just shrugged. "One day, you'll have your own assistants."
I frowned at him and tossed the towel onto the counter, waiting for a real answer. I leaned back against the cabinets and crossed my arms over my chest.
"It had to be this way. They could not know I was involved." He said mater-of-factly.
"You could've just asked me, you know." My voice was quieter than I meant for it to be. He should know by now that I'd help him with his plans.

"Harper.. you can read people's minds.. I could not risk someone reading yours. What I did was necessary." His voice was gently chastising, and I couldn't argue with it. I trained my eyes on the floor. I knew he was right, but that had little bearing on my feelings on the matter. I still felt like he didn't trust me, and, worse than that, I felt like I was no more important than any of his other pawns. Call me childish, but I wanted to be more to him than his unwitting puppet.

He read my face like a book.
"Harper, this would not have worked without you." He said, completely serious. My eyes flicked up to his face, and he caught my gaze and held it. "I am sorry if I have hurt your feelings.. but this was a plan 60 years in the making, I had to tread carefully in order for it to succeed. You were an essential part of that, even if you could not know." As far as I could tell, he was being sincere. He watched my face to gauge my reaction. Call me easy, but his words lessened the sting of tonight's realizations. I believed him, mostly because he usually didn't bother with such apologies. So even if I was wrong and he wasn't being genuine, he at least cared enough to lie in order to make me feel better.

I sighed deeply and allowed myself a small smile. I let it go. "So how does it feel to see a plan started in the 40s finally come to fruition?"
Giuseppe grinned widely and grabbed a beer from the fridge. He took a long drink in way of answer. I couldn't help but grin myself. Damn he was good.

"So what are you going to do now?" I asked after a moment of amiable silence.
"I think I will go to New York. There are some interesting things going on up there." He said as he drank the beer.
"Giovanni is interested in a few things there too."
Giovanni's voice carried in from the other room as he limped towards the kitchen. So much for privacy. "No, just the one bastard!"
Giuseppe grabbed another beer from the fridge and tossed it to Giovanni as he walked in.

"I must say, Giovanni, that among all of the progeny, you were a rather unexpected accident. However, I am pleased with the results."
Giovanni smirked ironically and clinked his beer bottle against Giuseppe's in a toast.
"I'm going to find and kill his ass." Giovanni said after a long pull from the bottle.
"You will have quite a fight ahead of you." Giuseppe said, even as he nodded his understanding.
I found that amusing, considering. "We had quite a fight ahead of us tonight. We managed."
"I will see what information I can find when I get up there."

I grimaced, and asked a question that had been eating at me since we left Citysmith's building. "Why'd it have to be Birch?" I didn't try and hide the disgust in my voice
Giuseppe looked equally annoyed when I mentioned the name, but his expression quickly turned smug. "He is very easy to manipulate."
"Fair enough. Birch doesn't think much of me." I observed, but I was alright with that. He was an ingratiating sonofabitch, but I'd rather him be annoyed by me, given a choice.
Giuseppe set his mostly empty bottle on the table. "Interestingly, he does not dislike you because he underestimates you. He feels you underestimate yourself." I raised an eyebrow in skeptical surprise. I guess that made sense.. and until tonight, I would have even said he was right. But tonight had been very eye opening, in many ways. I would prefer to have him underestimate me, though.

"That is another reason to leave for awhile. No doubt Birch will take the first flight out to Prague to examine his new stock." He drained the last of his beer with a self-satisfied smirk. "And will be very surprised to find gypsies bred into the line."
I let out a bark of surprised laughter, Giovanni chuckled. Serves that bastard right.
"Another group that I saved from the camp." Giuseppe explained before I could even ask. Giuseppe would always be a mystery to me. I think it was a big part of what drew me to him, and sometimes it got under my skin, but I was starting to understand him a little better.
"And the Mallaus?" I asked when it occurred to me that requesting me to dig up information on them was probably a front to get me to Chicago in the first place. He verified my suspicion. "They are not really my concern. I have enough people still in the organization to keep tabs on them well enough."
"The heresy?"
His eyes flashed angrily. "I have yet to find any more information on the ones that hurt my Mona. "
"You know I'll help." I said with fervor.
His mouth twitched in a small smile. "I know."

"And the Natalie Promethean?" I was determined to put as many pieces together as I could tonight.
He hesitated. "That.. was unexpected. That was not Ray.. nor I."
I raised a dubious eyebrow. "Really."
"There are still many mysteries, apparently." He seemed as perplexed about that as I felt.
But I refused to be bothered by such a thing tonight. "I'd get very bored if there weren't."

The mention of Ray caused my train of thought to take a different direction.
"I murdered someone tonight.." I said thoughtfully, and surprisingly, without regret.
Giuseppe remained silent and Giovanni looked at me, utterly amused. "And how do you feel about that?"
I shrugged and grabbed his beer, taking a swig. "Oddly.. I'm okay with it." And I was. Better still, I wasn't upset that I was.

He smirked at me and snatched his beer back. "Welcome to the family."

February 10, 2010

Totems and Liquor

"Bale hound?" I leaned back against the car, not quite comprehending why Ori was so distraught.
Ori was slowly calming himself down, the questions helped, gave him something to focus on. "A werewolf that makes a deal with spirits of the not so nice variety."
"Oh, the ones Tommy was talking about. He told us he'd heard unsubstantiated rumors.. that they were worse then Pure.. usually malevolent, destructive and evil." I related from the phone conversation I'd had with him after the spirit had busted out of the computer screen.
Ori nodded emphatically. "Making deals with spirits like that usually leads down that path. Personally I wasn't even sure they existed. Most Uratha will tell you they don't, that they're just an urban myth." He paused, and seemed to come to some resolution to an internal conflict. "But we have to do something. The leader of the Architects of Steel is a fucking bale hound for Christ's sake. Her pack has to be told.. I mean, they're being led by a traitor!" He said as though he still couldn't bring himself to believe it. He wasn't outraged.. not yet. But I could see it building behind his eyes.

But I was skeptical that it was even an issue for us. "She seems to be doing good work.. she wants to make the city better.. what's the negative outcome of this? You'll have to forgive me, I'm not really familiar with the werewolf mindset."
It was actually Giovanni who responded. "Its like Nobody here working for the court then it turns out, he was an agent of the Fae the whole time."
I nodded slowly, slightly distubred that I understood the changeling simile better than the werewolf actuality.. "Ah. So what are the ramifications?"
Ori sighed and rubbed his eyes. "She may succeed in getting the city perfect, but that kind of deal? She'll probably succeed in perfection the way Hitler tried to. Chicago will be the prettiest, most perfect SCAR you've ever seen."
Maybe I should do more research on the werewolf end of things. Thankfully, Ori had already explained the concept of the spiritual scar and how it effected reality. "Probably what the killer has hanging over her then?" I suggested.
"Probably." Giovanni answered.
I shook my head, something was off. "But are they working together or is he blackmailing her? If he's ridden, why would he be working against her?" We were missing something.. something important.
Gio shrugged. "Who says the majlin get along? Could be a power struggle."
Nobody, who was sitting on the roof of the car, spoke up. "So what do we do to take her out?"
Everyone was quiet.

"We could take it to Volkas, ask his opinion." Nobody suggested.
Giovanni grimaced. "I doubt that's a good idea. Couldn't this start a big war among the werewolves?" He asked, looking at Ori, who just nodded gravely.

I was just getting annoyed. I leaned back, half sitting on the hood of the car, arms crossed over my chest and gave everyone a slightly irritated glare. Everyone seemed to be missing the most significant part of this little piece of information.  "Lets slow down. All we have is the word of a fucking beshilu.. we need to corroborate the information before we go doing a damn thing." I saw a brief flash of hope on Ori's face, that maybe the beshilu had been lying. I saw it die just as quickly as he calculated the possibility of that. I ignored it and continued."...and I think we're missing a very important point here." I looked at Ori and gave a humorless smile, tinged with mild scorn. "Forgive me for saying..but I don't give a shit about the werewolf power structure. What I care about is getting my hands on this serial killer.. and right now there is one person who has information about our serial killer." Everyone looked at me expectantly. I was a little surprised no one else had come to this conclusion yet. "This may sound foolhardy, not that that's unusual for us, but we need to get that information from that person."

Giovanni eyed me suspiciously and asked the question I think he'd already figured the answer to. "Who."
I smirked at him, reveling in their confusion, and pulled one of the surveillance photos out of my pocket and held it up. "Who do you think?"
His expression didn't change. He'd known what I was getting at. "You're insane."
My smirk was more than slightly sardonic and I said, "That's been said before.. but I'm also right. We need information that she has." Everyone just stared at me, so I continued. "The question is how to get it from her. We could attempt blackmail..show the pictures, tell her we know her secret to get her to meet with us, but we need to be sure its TRUE first."

Giovanni rolled his eyes at me and my smug expression, giving me a fantastic impersonation of my own 'you're a fucking idiot' look. "That sounds like a god awful idea. She'll just kill us."
I shrugged and put the photo away. "Either way, our first step is to verify the source. So how the fuck do we do that?"

Ori looked thoughtful for a moment, then spoke with a bit of hesitation. "Well.. if shes made an oath to this majlin, she doesn't have an oat to her tribal totem. The tribal totem would know if we asked him about it."
I quirked a brow. More werewolf lingo I was clueless about.."Totem?"
"Totems are powerful spirits who have tied themselves to certain werewolves..or in this case, a certain tribe. The Iron Master's totem is Sagrim-Ur, Red Wolf.. basically seen as the progenitor of the tribe. If Citysmith's not oath bound to him any more then he would be able to verify it." Ori explained.
"Why wouldn't he have done anything about it?" Nobody asked.
"She's at least been paying lip service.. it could be that she's made a point to avoid him. There are a lot of Iron Masters.. Red Wolf doesn't exactly sit around and constantly monitor every single one." Ori said with a shrug.
"And you can talk to this spirit?" I asked, again skeptical. It sounded like it had to be a powerful one, and I knew that Ori wasn't like Tommy- he wasn't an Ithaeur.
Ori looked nervous. "I can try. but I'll need help. I don't know where to look for Red Wolf. I'm not an Iron Master, or an Ithaeur." He paused, then sighed heavily, looking increasingly more agitated. "I gotta call someone."
I narrowed my eyes suspiciously. "Who?"
"The Whispers." He pulled out his phone and started dialing.
"Be vague." I said blandly. Weren't we trying to keep this under wraps?

I heard a tired voice answer on the other end of the phone. I recognized it as Sleepless William, one of the werewolves who'd helped us with Pain of Animal.
"Hey William! you sound tired, you sleepin' ok?" Ori said, way too cheerfully.
The voice was now tired..and annoyed. "Fuckin.. what do you want?"
I gave Giovanni an incredulous look and muttered, "Really? This guy is an idiot."
Ori just gave me a sheepish smile and kept talking.
"I need a favor.. I need to talk to the Red Wolf.. can you help? I need to ask him..."
"Hold on."
There was a shuffling noise, and a new voice came on the line, a much more awake voice.
"Hey Mike."
"You need to talk to Sagrim-Ur? When?" Mike sounded curious.
"As soon as possible." Ori said.
"Okay, meet me at 234 South Halsted in 20 minutes."

We all got into the car and headed in that direction. We'd probably get there in just under 20 minutes, so we didn't have much time to discuss the situation.
"You need to be vague when they ask why." I said from the front seat without looking back at Ori.
"I cant.. they'll want to know. Look, they're known for KNOWING things, they'll be cool." Ori responded, trying to sound reassuring. It didn't work.
"This isn't a normal secret." I snapped, turning around to glare at him.
"If I don't tell they may not help us." Ori stated matter of factly. Well shit.
Nobody rolled his eyes at Ori. "Let me give you a lesson you'll need to learn soon enough."
Ori turned in his seat and leaned in close to Nobody, giving him rapt attention with a mockingly eager face. "Oooo A lesson? Please! tell me! Because you seem to know SO MUCH about werewolves! I'm dying to know!"

I let out a bark of surprised laughter and looked at Giovanni, who was chuckling to himself.  "You know what I said about him earlier? I rescind my previous statement." I said.
"Ori, you're alright." Gio said with a grin.
Nobody looked sullen, and didn't try to finish his thought. I turned to Ori, expression now serious, but a ghost of amusement remained. "This could start war, remember?"
Ori threw his hands up in frustration. I finally saw the anger in his eyes. And the betrayal. I knew what that felt like. That look, more than anything, made me take his next words more seriously.

"Look. Every day I don't tell someone, is another day this city is being run by the enemy. I have a moral obligation to tell someone. I have to. I'm going to." He met my gaze, and his expression was set and determined, if not a little scared. He was challenging me, waiting for me to disagree with him.
I studied his face for a moment and gave a curt now. "Your call." He looked mildly surprised that I wasn't going to argue with him. He'd been prepared to dig his heels in and defend his position. I'd caught him off guard.

We pulled up to the address and it was a construction site. Equipment lay scattered randomly around, looking like oversized toys in the moonlight. Mike was leaning against his car waiting for us.
"Mind if I bring the bodyguards?" Ori said, trying to make his voice joking and light hearted, but there was an undercurrent of nervousness. However, I couldn't tell if it was caused by the conversation he was about to have with the totem, or something else. Out of curiosity, I started monitoring his aura. Like all werewolves I'd seen, it was crazy with emotion. I really had no idea how they didn't down right explode from all the pent up emotional turmoil.

We headed into the construction site and stood in front of the buildings framework. Steel girders rose in front of us like an eerie, metal skeleton. Mike pulled out a long steel blade that was surprisingly dull. He slammed it again the beams and dragged it downward, causing a loud ringing noise to assault our ears. He sheathed the knife, nodded to Ori, and walked back towards the car.

Ori looked up and his aura flickered with colors of nervousness, fear, and resolve, among other things. The rest of us exchanged a glanced and pulled out our goggles, slipping them on. The ringing turned into a piercing howl, and the biggest red wolf I'd ever seen was standing in front of us. And by big, I mean several STORIES tall. We were going to get neck cramps staring up at the fucker. He didn't seem happy, but then, I would probably be annoyed too if people like us disturbed me.

Ori exhaled, then jumped right into the fire. I suppose there was no point hedging around the issue. "We were told that Olivia Citysmith has made an oath to Lamashtu." The response was immediate. Red Wolf let loose a howl of pure, unadulterated RAGE. It rang in my ears, crawled down my spine and overall scared the ever loving shit out of me. But amid the fear was the realization that his howl would not have been so angry if the information hadn't been true. All he needed was for someone to inquire, and he'd done whatever it was totems did to verify the information. Ori knew it too. His aura flashed with rage, disappointment, and terror.

Red Wolf seemed to speak in more than one voice, because before the howl had even died on his muzzle he was demanding more information. His voice was deep and growling, and resounded more in my head than in my ears. "Where do you get this information?"
"One of the Beshilu." Ori answered. We all felt the waves of anger undulating from the huge spirit. I made a mental note to never piss him off.
"Pay the spirit in kind." The totem growled, and slowly faded from our vision. We stripped off our goggles and traded glances, eyes showing a little too much white.

"Did he just order you to kill Olivia Citysmith?" Nobody asked.
Ori took a deep breath. "Yup."
I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger. "Fantastic."

We walked back to the cars, and Mike was slumped against his, hell of his hand pressed against his temple.
Ori's aura flared with nervousness again. Interesting..

"So you're probably wondering what that's about." Ori started.
Mike winced and stood up straight. "He told me.. holy shit. OW."
"What should we do. " Ori asked, helplessly.
"I know what I'm going to do, what you do is your choice." Mike said, pulling out his car keys.
"I need advice." Ori said, slightly desperately.
Mike sighed and consider Ori for a moment. "Well you can't accuse her, you're a nobody, no offense.. I can't do it because I'm part of one of the packs vying for the city. Only other option is to convince her pack."
Easier said than done.. how do you convince a pack that they've been being led by the enemy for years? I haven't observed werewolves to be immune to the powers of denial.
Ori frowned. "Will they take the word of Sagrim-Ur?"
Mike shrugged. "The iron masters will. But the whole pack isn't iron master. My recommendation? Focus on Yussef Mahudi, her pet murderer."
"Is he Iron Master?"
"No, he's Rahu Blood Talon."
Ori winced. "Shit. Thanks for your help."
"Good luck." And he left, probably to start raising the alarm and plan for battle.


We all stood there, watching him drive away, not having the first clue on what to do. The tension was high, frustrations were high, but somewhere in there was a feeling of determination. We'd faced more difficult problems.. I think.

After a few moments of silence, Ori broke it, clapping his hands together and looking at us.
"Anyone want a drink?"
I felt a small smirk creep up onto my face. "That's a dangerous question."
Ori's eyes went wide and he covered his mouth in mock surprise. "Oh my GOD, was that a joke?"
Nobody shook his head emphatically. "No way!"
Giovanni mirrored his expression. "Couldn't be. Her sense of humor died with her remember?"
I flipped them all off, turning slowly to show them all (even Becca, who had remained silent, but couldn't keep the grin off her face) "You guys need new material." I said.
And just like that, the tension was broken. The worries were still there. We were still clueless, but it was pushed to the back of our minds, replaced by that determination and resolute attitude, with the undercurrent of foolhardiness that was becoming our trademark.

We got back in the car, and at Ori's suggestion, headed to the Hair of the Dog. I was getting pretty sick of werewolves, but it was a place we could talk and not worry much. No one at the Hair of the Dog was likely to give a shit about anything. Besides, Southpaw still owed us a favor.

We went to the bar and ordered. Everyone but me and Ori ordered something full of liquor. This was one of those times that I really wished alcohol still effected me. A stiff rum and coke sounded therapeutic right about now. I couldn't remember the last time I had a rum and coke, even before I died, and it not taste like a goddamn whiskey sour. Fucking ghosts.

When the bartender looked at Ori, he said, "Uhh.. Dos XX I guess."
Nobody looked at him incredulously, holding his whiskey and coke. "That's not beer. It's Mexican piss."
I leaned back against the bar, resting my elbows on its polished surface, facing the rest of the room. "For once, the man has a point."
Ori gestured at me with his 'beer' "Oh? And what would you like to drink Harper? Oh wait!"
I gave him the finger. Again. I pushed off the bar to grab a table in the back of the room, acting indignant. I had to give him credit, he could be pretty quick witted. It was damn amusing sometimes.

Once we were all situated, Gio decided to get back to business. "So what do we do about her?"
I frowned and leaned back in my chair, one hand on the table playing with my empty cocktail napkin. "Once again, you're all missing the point. We need the information that she has. If we kill her, assuming we even can, we lose the only lead we have on this fucking serial killer. And I don't know about you guys, but I don't give a shit about werewolf politics. I care about tearing this mother fucker's throat out."
"And how exactly do you propose we get information out of her?" Gio asked, voice dripping with sarcasm and mild frustration.
I shrugged, tossing the crumpled napkin to the middle of the table. "Blackmail... I just don't know how to keep her from shifting and eating our faces."
"What about the equalizer grenades Valkyrie has?" Gio asked. I just gave him a confused look. "Theo said they had grenades that stopped werewolves from shifting. Equalizer grenades." Gio explained.
But Ori shot that down quickly. "Look, she's an Ithaeur. What you need to worry about isn't her shifting, its her making the entire building EAT US. That's her place of power."

"So we get her out to the countryside. Tell her we know what she is, and she needs to meet us or else we'll spill her little secret to everyone. Of course, we need to do it before she realizes we already have.." I suggested.
Gio threw his hand in a dismissive gesture. "She won't come. She'll send people to kill us."
"Dead man's trigger. We die.. info goes out." I countered.
"Harper, shes got more resources than we do, by far.. and shes insane! She'll just kill us! Dead man's trigger or not, we'll be dead! That kinda defeats the purpose of the whole thing. And if not then, she'll kill us later."
I scowled. Fuckin.. I had no idea what to do. How would we get her to talk?

"What if we offered to hide her from the other werewolves?" Nobody asked as he sipped his drink.
Ori winced. "Seriously?"
Nobody gave a nasty smile. "I never said how long we'd hide her for..."
But I shook my head. "Doesn't matter. She's too proud. She won't go for it. She made an oath to Lamashtu, afterall..."

We all fell silent again, brooding over the problem at hand. I felt like we were going at this from all the wrong angles. I decided to start over. I drummed my fingers on the table and looked at Ori. "Ori.. tell me everything you know about Citysmith. Anything at all you can think of, as little as you think it may be." There had to be something we could use to our advantage.

Ori took a swig of his 'beer' and rubbed the back of his neck, trying to concentrate. "Uh.. she's trying to make Chicago perfect.. too perfect if you ask me.. she's really proud," he rolled his eyes because of the obviousness of his statement, but I encouraged him to continue. I didn't want him to leave anything out that he may feel was obvious that the rest of us may not know.
Ori continued. "Well.. she's gorgeous.. like really gorgeous, and very, VERY vain from what I've heard."
This turned the conversation in another direction. Nobody began making inane comments about werewolf beauty pageants, but I wasn't really listening. I blocked it all out and tried to think. There had to be something here. Vanity.. pride. There had to be some way to exploit that. Flattery would be useless... how did we get her to see us? Hell, all we needed was to be in the same room with her without her trying to claw our eyes out and I could at least dig into her head.

I wasn't even in the bar anymore.. I had block everything out, too deep in my own thoughts..Pride.. vanity..

Oh shit.

I sat bolt upright in my chair, causing the others to fall silent and look at me expectantly.
"Gio, you're an arrogant ass right? Pride and all that?" I asked, a smirk starting at the corning of my mouth.
Gio lifted an eyebrow at me, but answered, "Pride goeth before destruction."
My smirk turned more devious. "Exactly. So we use her vanity." I paused, Giovanni gestured for me to continue, eyes skeptical even before I'd finished my idea. "Tell me, how would it speak to her pride to have someone equally proud ask her.. beseech her even.. for help? Say.. a member of the proud Santore family who she vies against for control of Chicago?"
Everyone was quiet, but looked thoughtful. Giovanni still looked skeptical.
"Are you talking about me or someone else?" He asked. I could tell he didn't like the idea, but not because it was a bad one, more because it involved asking Citysmith for anything.
I leaned back again and shrugged. "Well, you, I suppose, unless you have a better idea."
He heaved a pained sigh."Fine. Ill do it. Lets hear the plan."

That wilted the edges of my smug smirk. "That's really it for now. ask her for her help with the serial killer...or something else to get us up to see her and keep her from automatically killing us.."  I trailed off. I didn't have more than that.
Giovanni's expression went thoughtful, like he was daydreaming, or remembering something important. Then, his eyes refocused and he took on a nasty, smug grin of his own and stood to leave.  "I need to make a call. I'll see you guys later."
I frowned at him. "Where are you going?"
"Family business. I just remembered I'm related to a girl who really enjoys fighting dirty." He took out his phone and started towards the door. I could hear the phone conversation as he left.

"Hey Bella, I need your help."
"Wait. Wait.. I'm relishing this. The proud Giovanni coming to me for help..."
"It will help you take down Citysmith..."
There was a sharp intake of breath. "You've got my attention."

Giovanni started telling her about what was going on as he walked out. The rest of us exchanged glances, coming to a mutual decision, and followed him out.

February 5, 2010

The bombshell

I wandered around for awhile, trying to get my head straight. I wanted the Rites of the Dragon in front of me before I started trying to make sense of this shit, but I didn't feel like heading back to the shop yet. Besides, I nearly had the damn thing memorized..

"Who can truly reign when the choice between darkness and light is always and utterly within the human heart?" This quote from the Rites of the Dragon, combined with Birch's 'lesson' weighed heavily in my head. I needed somewhere to think.

I walked into a crowded coffee shop and managed to get a table amidst all the college students studying for finals, people chatting with friends, and kids avoiding their parents. I sat with my back to the wall with a cup of coffee and put on a mask of neutral pleasantness. I couldn't quite manage friendly right now, but I could keep myself from looking like I was about to tear someone's throat out (which was quite an accomplishment). Something told me the random red head sitting in the corner watching people with a scowl on her face would be slightly more noticeable and disconcerting than a woman enjoying an evening of people watching.

My head was crowded with my own thoughts. I wondered, not for the first time, why it was I had such a hard time wrapping my head around...myself. I didn't think myself that delusional.. but each time I seemed to come to a resolution, more problems and complications popped up.

Or maybe that was another aspect of my condition. It was highly probable that I was expecting too much from myself. I got frustrated anytime I started to struggle with understanding myself, my beast, or how they interact and exist as one... but reading that book it struck me that Vlad struggled with that very thing (among others) for decades. I had been kindred for less than 2 years.

I might very well have been overestimating myself.

Since my head was so very crowded, I decided to jump into someone else's. I sat at my table eased my way into the thoughts of the people around me. It proved even less pleasant than my own turmoil. 

The girl in the corner was stressing so badly over an economics final that she was about to cry. She'd been up two days straight studying for it, yet her major was dance. The group of teenagers in the corner were having what they felt was a very deep and intellectual conversation about philosophy, but as much as they were thinking, they weren't actually having any ideas. They just kept name dropping to make themselves sound smart. And in their heads, they really believed themselves light years more intelligent than their peers who talked about football and parties, regardless of the fact that none of them had had an original thought since they'd wondered what it would be like to shove those linkin' log up their noses as 3 year olds. There was a couple in the corner having an argument. The girl was thinking that she must be an ugly whore for him to still be getting voicemails from his ex, and was considering leaving him for it, and he was thinking about how it really had been a wrong number and that if she didn't believe him and left, he might just go home tonight and kill himself. There was also a guy in the far corner of the room who was pretending to study, but was actually trying to work up the courage to walk over to talk to me.. and was picturing me naked.

I pulled back to myself and gave a small, disgusted shiver. Every single thought was pointless. People obsessing over things that, ultimately, didn't matter. I jumped from person to person and got.. nothing. Nothing of substance. Nothing important. Nothing that was even WORTH knowing. I dug into their minds, looking at more than just the surface thoughts. I found a few tidbits of mildly interesting information, and a shit ton of blackmail material.. but just.. it all seemed so inconsequential.

I looked out over all these people and realized that almost every single one of them was completely useless. One or two of them had potential to achieve something later on in life, there was a guy that was enough of a fighter that he'd probably be very useful as a body guard to someone, if he weren't human, and the barista seemed to have so much fucking street smarts that even Deuce would have probably been impressed.. but over all, the room was filled with vapid, pointless, ineffectual people. It made me consider all the vampires I knew that fit that same description. There were quite a few, too wrapped up in political games to ever do anything that was actually important. Too caught up in a circular, self fulfilling scheme of power. For what? To get more power. Power merely for the sake of power. It was pathetic.The game was different, but the outcome was the same. Human and kindred alike. Most of them were nothing but a waste of resources.

But I'd also seen what kind of impact killing any one of them could have. I won't ever know all the ways it will effect the world around them, or around me. Giuseppe had showed me that at the very beginning.

"Every season has its lesson, and every lesson has its price. He is a fool indeed who scorns that which he has already bought at dear cost." Vlad wrote in his journals.  

I'd given up something that night. Giuseppe had held me at the man's throat until I'd killed him, but I could have stopped. Giuseppe may have killed me, but I could have stopped. It was part of the reason I'd decided to stop feeding on people.. I had said it myself, I didn't want to risk killing anyone. The motivation for why I didn't want to kill them was unimportant. But now I realized that in a way, the chain reaction I'd observed after that kid's death didn't matter.

Giuseppe's lesson hadn't been to neglect acting if I didn't know all the possible consequences, it had been to act with the knowlegde that the consequences existed. I was not an observer. I was part of the environment. I had just as much right to effect it as anyone else. Giuseppe had been advising not to do it without some purpose. I was allowing my lack of knowledge to keep me from acting. I didn't know all the possible outcomes, I didn't know who was truly guilty or innocent.. and I was letting that interfere.

Guilty or innocent... I gave a bitter laugh. A few people gave me strange looks before returning to their coffee. I'd said before that I had no more room for classifications of guilty or innocent.. bad guy or good guy.. just useful and not.

Vlad's words rang in my head, "...once I wailed and beat my breast, using remorse to justify cowardice and letting a fear of doing evil keep me from finding the very treasures of existence," and realized I'd regressed. I'd used useful and ineffective as thinly veiled labels for the same concepts of good and bad. I still saw myself as a 'good guy', and I didn't even know what being a good guy meant. Could you be a murderer and still be a good guy? A mobster? The more situations I faced, the more I was convinced that black and white didn't exist. Just shades of gray. Maybe what I was doing wasn't 'right'.. but I felt it important.. and that was ultimately what mattered to me, when I started to be honest with myself. I knew what I was doing mattered. So did that mean that I would stop if the means to achieve it were less than upstanding? I knew I couldn't do that, but thats what I was worrying over.

But the issue wasn't whether I should risk feeding on humans, risk killing them. The issue was my fear of fucking up. My fear that if I lose control and kill one person, I'll just keep devolving until I kill more and more. As though I don't have a choice in the matter. Saying I didn't want to kill anyone who might be useful was merely another way of saying I was afraid of the consequences I couldn't foresee. It struck me then, the way Vlad had changed from the beginning of his journals to the end. He had started out as a monster, and later evolved into a philosopher. That kinda proved that the road to monster-hood was not permanent, if it were to happen...

I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my hands, glad I no longer got headaches.. because this one would be a enourmous.

But it wasn't an issue of morality at all, I realized. I'm not sure it ever had been, not at its core. I was afraid of losing control. That was the beginning and end of it. Sure, the thought of cold-blooded, ruthless, and pointless murder didn't sit well with me, but it was the 'pointless' part that caused me the most discomfort.

I sighed and leaned back in the uncomfortable chair and stared at the ceiling. It wasn't my diet that Birch thought made me weak. It was my fear.

And he was fucking right. That son of a bitch.

But really, I was more angry with myself.  Knowledge and control were extremely important to me. But I couldn't know everything, and the longer I went keeping my beast under lock and key the harder it was becoming to maintain that composure.It wanted more than I was giving. It needed more.

Dracula had supposedly been made a vampire by God. A curse.. but I never really thought of vampirism as a curse. At least, I said I didn't. But if not that, then what? A fluke of nature? Seemed far fetched. Another step in evolution? I didn't really believe that either, regardless of how much more powerful I could be than when I was human. But that didn't mean vampirism was unnatural. But the nature of the kindred condition wasn't something I was going to be able to puzzle out in one evening, sitting in a coffee shop.

The important thing wasn't the nature of it. What was important was that I was a vampire. Period. I could change myself, unlike many kindred, but I'm still kindred. Even Nico is still a vampire, despite his appearance. So how much sense did it make to act like something I'm not? Although I have more regard for humans than to assume them just cattle, it really was like trying to be a goddamn vegan. There's just no good fucking reason for it. It's like feeding soy to a lion. I was still clinging to humanity as though I still had to obey the same rules as they did, and it just wasn't true. I had yet to come to terms with the fact that, as human as I try to seem,  I'm not.

But not being human doesn't automatically make me a monster, either, I realized. Being monstrous was a choice.. being a predator, much less so. So why was I so afraid of letting the predator be in control occasionally? Allowing myself the "only unalloyed pleasure in blood." as Vlad put it, rather accurately. And Fuck did I miss it..

Something else that had really grating on my nerves since my first read through of the text was Anoushka's philosophy. Her feeling that as kindred, we were inherently evil and therefore had to learn the Coils to offset that. She wept and mourned over her condition, agonizing over her actions, feeding off vermin.. even though Vlad himself pointed out the strain that can put on a kindred. And he was right. It made it more difficult to handle the beast when I didn't sate it the way it wanted to be sated. I found Anoushka to be whining, self righteous, annoying,  and pathetic throughout the entireity of Vlad's journals. So I was pretty much forced to ask myself one very important question.

Did I sound like that too?

The possibility disgusted me.

I didn't intend to terrorize people for no reason.. I also didn't intend to go around and slaughter random mortals.. but if I really felt what I was trying to do was important, I had to come to terms with casualties. I had to be okay with needing to do the dirty work that might be neccesary. I was wrong to think i could avoid it.  But Birch was wrong too. He was wrong to underestimate them. They had the potential to be more than just prey.

Human potential aside, if I really wanted to fulfill my own potential, I had stop thinking of the Beast as separate from myself. Something to keep imprisoned out of fear or guilt at the dark pleasure it held for me.. or both. I was a predator, and I had just as much right to hunt as any other. And if one night I lost control... then I would have to deal with the consequences. I suppose it could be argued that if the Beast was me, and vice versa, no matter which part had the reins, I was still in control in one manner or another.

But it would take awhile before I'd be able to consider it as such. Baby steps, I guess. It would be a hard concept to come to grips with, but not impossible. I had always said I wanted to use the Beast to my own ends, but I had been ignoring it's needs. And it wasn't making things any easier. So I'd start tonight.

I stretched, arching my back up, and my arms behind my head, and then stood. Vulturous med students fell on my table and devoured it with books, papers and laptops almost before I'd finished pushing the chair in.

I caught the eye of the guy in the corner, the one who had been pretending to study, and flashed him a slightly more-than-just-friendly smile as I strolled over to his table. I put a little extra movement into my hips and watched with smug satisfaction as his eyes traveled downwards. He'd be easy enough to get alone.. and the Beast had been whispering about how sweet his blood smelled since the moment I'd walked in.

And the Beast was so very right.


No one was surprised to see me.  Except Becca. She didn't say as much, but when I walked back in I noticed her body language shift into a more relaxed state. And she started actually watching TV instead of trying to stare holes through it. Everyone else had been convinced Birch hadn't planned on offing me tonight.

I'm glad some of us had been. Fuck.

I was riding high on a luxury I had denied myself the last few weeks. My thoughts were still a little chaotic (but getting clearer), but thankfully, Ori started right in with the distractions. Once I entered the lab, he brought up an important point.

"So.. what are we planning on doing this whole..Citysmith/serial killer thing?" He looked helplessly at the three of us. I settled onto a stool, Everyone (but Nadi, who was out) was seated or standing around the largest work table (Nobody was on the ceiling). I very much welcomed the diversion of my thoughts. They weren't settled yet and I preferred to focus on something that might have a very positive outcome.. like getting my hands on this serial killer piece of shit and tearing out his goddamn throat.

Everyone was quietly thoughtful.

"Well, we theorized, before he up and vanished, that he may have some connection to the beshilu.."
"What?! how do you know?!" Ori interrupted.
I pressed my lips into a thin line and waited for him to shut the fuck up before I continued. "We don't know for sure, but one of the victims was possessed when he died..And there is the fact that with Drake dead, power shifted away from the werewolves and back to the mages.."
"That may not have been intentional.. or at least not the work of the beshilu.." Gio interrupted.
I just shrugged. "Maybe not.. but its a start at least.. " I hesitated briefly before deciding to tell them the rest. I didn't like even hinting at the old morphine addiction. "That and the killer knows things he shouldn't. He knew something about me that only 3 people ever knew.. and two of them are dead."
"And the other?" Ori asked.
"Giuseppe. But the point is one of the ones who did know was possessed before he died by Beshilu. I know that's a long shot.. but it's possible that it's related."
"And how do you guys know about the beshilu anyway?" Ori asked, skeptical.
"Dealt with them in Austin, like I said, one of them possessed one of my.." I searched for the right colorful adjective.
"Friends?" Ori suggested.
"No.. no.. that kid was a complete asshole.." I replied.
"Bob wrote about the rats in his journal.." Nobody said.
"Tommy told me about them before he left." Gio added.

I looked at Nobody and Gio. "You think we should take this to Volkas? He may have some insight.."
Gio grimaced, picking up one of the photos to examine it. "It may be better to keep this quiet for now.."
"He does have quite a bit of personal stake in this himself you know.." I leaned over and tapped the man in the hoodie in one of the pictures.
Nobody looked confused for a split second until the memory came back. "Oh..yeah..his friend the security guard.."
Grigori was looking from one of us to the other. "Look, I'm not really all that familiar with this whole case.. are you suggesting that Citysmith made a deal.. with the beshilu?"
I leaned back again, crossing my arms. "Why not?"
Ori gave a short sarcastic laugh. "A werewolf would have to be insane to make a deal with the beshilu.. I mean, they're pretty much spirits of chaos.. there's no reason for them to keep their end of the bargain!  And they aren't really criminal masterminds.."
I shrugged, unconvinced. "Giuseppe did it."
Ori remained skeptical.

I picked up another photo and examined it. I'd been so focused on the killer I hadn't really looked at Citysmith. I grabbed a few of them and set them side by side, in chronological order. They'd only been taken milliseconds apart and showed a rather nervous and angry Olivia Citysmith. "Her body language looks pissed.. nervous.."
Gio leaned over and flipped the photos around to face him, scrutinizing them as well. "Maybe they aren't working together. Maybe he's got something on her."
I quirked a brow at him. "If that were the case, what's keeping her from ripping him to pieces? Just because she's pissed doesn't mean they aren't working together."
"Doesn't mean they are either though." He shot back.
I leaned back with a pensive frown. "Yeah.. we can't really afford to make those assumptions.. there is just too much we don't know.."

Nobody opened his mouth to speak, then paused and took on a pensive look.
"Something on your mind, Nobody?" Giovanni asked him.
I bit back a scathing comment.
"There's this guy..  Kitner. He's a night janitor at one of the medical testing facilities downtown."
"What about him?" I asked
Nobody shrugged. "Not sure, but he's this really twitchy guy that keeps coming to mind, him and the janitor over at Chicago U... can't really get the name out of my head. Could be a lead.."

I frowned, we've gotten info from more dubious sources than someones gut feeling before.. but still.. "Lets go talk to Volkas first, see what he thinks, if he can give us any leads.."

We headed out to see Volkas. I called Nadi to see if she'd join us, but her brother answered and said something about keeping her at his place for awhile.

We found Volkas in his usual place, coffee burning on the warmer, newspapers spread out across the tables.
"Heeey, what you reading? Sports? How're the Cubs doing?" Ori asked as he peered down at the newspapers.
"Fuck the cubs." Nobody said with a sneer.
"Fuck YOU." Ori retorted. The rest of us just rolled our eyes.
"No. Stocks, bonds.." Volkas said without looking up. He made a few more marks before standing and refilling his coffee mug. "What is it that you need?"

When we showed him the photo, he seemed surprised. His surprise turned into skepticism when we mentioned our ideas about the Beshilu.
"Why do you think this?" He asked.
I went through all the same things I had with Ori, when another popped into my head. "And Louie Ramone.. he was one of the victims.. his blood was rat blood."
"Rat blood, but not from beshilu..that is sign of something else.." Volkas shook his head.
Ori nodded slowly, slowly seeming to relax a bit more. Oddly, I'd noticed he seemed to get pretty uptight and nervous around other werewolves. Odd for a pack animal. "The ridden." 
"Yes...but if you want, there is man who works as night janitor at medical research lab downtown.. Kitner. He has much information. He is beshilu." His face turned serious. "Be respectful." As though we wouldn't.... nevermind. The statement struck me as odd though.. a werewolf telling us to treat the beshilu with respect. Well, Volkas was always an odd werewolf, so I guess that made a weird kind of sense.
"What about the guy at Chicago University?" Nobody asked.
"I do not know of him." Volkas responded.

We talked with him a few more minutes, then departed. We got back into the car and headed out.
"Where now?" Ori asked, leaning forward between the seats. I put on hand on his forehead and shoved him back into the backseat with an annoyed grunt. "Kitner, where else?"
"But that's not the only lead that we have." Ori pointed out.
Nobody caught my eye in the rear view mirror and gave me a sarcastic smirk . "But it's the only one we have information on right now." He turned and started reaching into his coat. "Do I need to get the newspaper?!"
I rolled my eyes as Gio pulled out into the street. "Children.."
Giovanni raised a fist in a mock threat. "Do I need to pull this car over?"
I crossed my arms and leaned back in the seat. "Just push them out while we're moving. No need to stop."
Gio smirked. "But then they could both tuck and roll, and they should do the walk of shame."
I smirked to myself but said nothing.

We got there without any incident. The place was closed, of course, since it was around 10pm.
"This place is probably going to have some pretty nice security..." Ori said, looking around to find the exterior cameras.
"Repeat performance of the John Hancock Center?" I asked, I could already feel my pupils expanding.
But Ori shook his head. "Nope.. won't help." He pointed to one of the cameras. "Nicer models. Infrared. I'm kinda surprised the high rise didn't also have them, actually.."
I frowned. "So what are our options? I don't show up well on shit like that anyway, but that's just me."
"We could always find the security room and take the footage of us being here." Nobody suggested.
"Yeah, I could probably find it." Ori affirmed.

I just shrugged. "Fine, just was long as they don't know that we were here."
Nobody picked the lock on the back door, and we all traipsed inside the building. The hallways were lit only by the security lights, and the place was eerily quiet. The only noises were our muted footsteps, and the soft tapping of Giovanni's cane.

"So what, we're just going to wander around until we find him?"  Becca asked, skeptically. Ori shrugged, and without warning, he began to shift. Becca jumped back, surprised. It had been awhile since I'd seen one shift up close. It was always disturbing. Bone made cracking noises, I watched muscles reform themselves, and the strangest thing was being aware of the circulatory system rearranging itself. Instinctively, I knew where his veins were.. even as they changed.

Ori was now a shaggy black wolf. He took off at a trot down the hallway, so we followed. He led us staright to the cafeteria were a man was mopping the floor. He looked up as we walked in and frowned at us, but kept mopping. "You aren't supposed to be here. Leave or I'm calling the police."
Gio held out his hands in a non-threatening manner. "You're Kitner, right? We just need some information from you.."
Kitner looked back down and kept mopping. "Leave, or I'm calling the police."
Wolf-Ori gave an annoyed huff, and in a flash, had shifted back up into his human form. That caused all sorts of drama.

When he shifted, Kitner looked up sharply and let out a scream,  wordless and loud. It was strange, because in the back of his mouth we could see three white rats, hissing at us, none of them with eyes. We watched as his skins started to deflate. White lab rats crawled out of his clothing, rats with missing or extra limbs, deformed bodies, misshaped tails.. rats that looked like they'd taken the brunt of twisted and cruel experiments.
"We aren't here to hurt you."  I said, watching the rats scurry away. Nobody pulled out a throwing knife and prepared to toss it hilt first into the retreating vermin, but I put a hand on his arm and shook my head. Stopping one would do us little good, and kinda undermined the whole 'we mean you no harm' thing.

In moments, all the rats had scattered into the dark recesses of the cafeteria, and all that was left was a sac of skin and clothes, and the mop.

"Look, we don't care why you're here, masquerading as a member of the staff , or what you're planning on doing. We just need some information." Gio said as he dug into his pocket for the photo of the killer.
The loud speaker crackled to life, and a hissing voice uttered guttural tones. We had no clue what he was saying, but Ori answered in a similar fashion.
Gio held up the photo before Ori could translate for us. "We need to know what you know about this guy."
There was a pause. I wondered if he'd answer us at all, but after a few seconds the speakers crackled to life again, and the voice was speaking in English. Oddly, it sounded regal.
"There isss nothing there."
"Exactly. What do you know about him? How he's connected to the Beshilu?" Gio asked.
"You are foolissh to think he isss one of usss."
I crossed my arms and frowned. "One of the victims had his blooded turned into rat blood."
"But not by the hossst. It isss a sssign of the ridden."
This really was not my area of expertise.. I didn't recognize the term. I knew Ori had used it earlier, but we'd changed topics and he'd never explained it. "Ridden by what?" I asked.
The next word he uttered was hard to describe. One of those words you knew would sound different to different people. What we heard and what Ori heard were slightly different. The voice said, "Urge Ssspirit."
Ori muttered, "The maejlin."

Well fuck. That didn't give us any more than we had had before. We knew the magelin were involved.. but now we had no leads. This serial killer fucker was really getting on my last nerve.

Giovanni tucked the photo back into his coat. "You've been helpful, as Ink Fingers told us you would be when he sent us. Thank you."
There was a pregnant pause before we heard the mechanical locks click open on the cafeteria doors. The voice said, "You may leave in peassse." The realization was interesting. Not only was he going to try to kill us, he apparently had some sort of understanding with Volkas. Weird.
"We need to see to the surveillance tapes so no one will know we were here." I said.
"No one will know."

"Just to let you know..Citysmith is involved." Ori added as we turned to leave. I have no idea why he had to add that, and I was fully prepared to smack him for it, until Kitner answered him.
"You aid her?" Kitner's voice became amused.
I sighed and gave Ori a nasty glare. "We want to know why she was talking to this guy. Help her or not, that's not really our concern. The truth is."
"Go then..run to her aid." He was laughing at us.
"It's quite the opposite really." Gio said. His smirk was a tinged with mild irritation.
"You already aid her, you who alssso pledged yourssself to Lamasssshtu." The cafeteria doors swung open for us, and the speakers fell completely silent.We walked out of the cafeteria, slightly puzzled.

"Who is that? Lamashtu?" Gio asked as the exterior door clicked shut behind us. We stood in the empty parking lot, and didn't really know where to go next.
Ori walked around to the passenger side of the car and leaned over the top, resting his arms on the roof. "Lamashtu is the maejlin of pri...... oh..my..god." His face went white as a sheet, eyes wide and mouth gaping in surprised realization.
I raised an eyebrow at his sudden display. "What?"
He pushed off from the car and looked between us almost frantically. "I heard that right.. right? He said that Giovanni served Lamashtu.. the maejlin of Pride?"
I frowned, not quite understanding what he was upset about. "Yeah.. Gio's an arrogant ass.. so?"
Ori managed to get even whiter, giving me a run for the money in the pale as death category. "He was telling us that Olivia Citysmith pledge herself to Lamashtu, too."

We all fell silent as the possible implications of that sunk in.
Ori's voice was nearly inaudible, as though saying it softer would make it less true. "...She's a bale hound."