July 30, 2010

On the Cusp of a New Chicago

January 9th, 2010

A month had passed since the fight with Citysmith, and for the most part, things had been quiet. Everyone had been focusing on their own shit. Nadi disappeared for awhile without a word to anyone, then showed back up yesterday and offered no explanation.. but then, no one asked.

Nobody and Ori had been training, mostly, and doing god knew what else during the day. Becca had started working out almost obsessively, probably in an attempt to distract herself from the fact that Nadi had up and vanished, and that I had been rather scare too, spending the majority of my time with Father Nico since my induction into the Sworn of the Dying Light three weeks ago. I'd already learned a new Coil, and changed my blood to enhance my already supernatural healing capabilities.

Giovanni had been holed up in his lab working on more of his mad scientist shit. His current project with a gauntlet that he had given an electrical charge. So far, he hadn't been able to make it discharge its entire load on contact, but he kept fiddling away.

Tonight, however, signaled the end of our vacation from overly dangerous situations. Ori walked into the lab holding a sketch pad and looking a bit nervous. "I think you guys should see this.."

We all looked up from our respective activities. Gio held out his hand for the pad. "What, did you have another freaky dream?" He asked as he looked over the pencil drawing Ori had rendered. "What exactly am I looking at here?" He asked and passed the pad to me. It made its circuit around the room.

"Chicago.. crumbling away, leaving gleaming white marble buildings underneath.. a perfect, and more terrible version of the city, with a tower stretching up to the sky, and skeletons hunched over people inhaling the life off of them." Ori said as he settled into one of the arm chairs.

"I thought we took care of that problem already when we killed Citysmith?" Gio muttered to himself.

Ori shrugged. "I just had the dream today.."

Nadi stared at the image, aura dancing with curiosity and a mild frustration. Suddenly, she grabbed her laptop and a couple of her old textbooks and began furiously flipping through them.

"Something strike a cord?" I asked her. She held up a hand to forestall any other questions as she flipped pages. Everyone went quiet and waited for her to finish. It only took about two minutes.

"Trajan's column." She said finally. "The tower in the center of the image looks like Trajan's Column." She began to read from her computer screen. "It's a Roman triumphal column in Rome, Italy, which commemorates Roman emperor Trajan's victory in the Dacian Wars. It was probably constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus at the order of the Roman Senate. It is located in Trajan's Forum, built near the Quirinal Hill, north of the Roman Forum. Completed in 113 CE, the freestanding column is most famous for its spiral bass relief, that artistically describes the epic wars between the Romans and Dacians."

We looked at each other, perplexed.

"Walking dead and roman architecture.. whats the significance?" Gio mused aloud.

Ori just shrugged. "I dunno, vampires maybe? But they were just skeletons.." He looked at me, helplessly.
I frowned at him. "Don't look at me.. I don't specialize in dream interpretation. Ask the faery.. I think he eats dreams sometimes."

Ori glanced at Nobody who just shook his head.

Ori looked thoughtful for a minute, then pulled out his cell phone. "I'm going to call the Whispers. Maybe the skeletons represent some kind of spirit." He dialed a number and waited patiently for a voice to answer. I recognized the tired voice as Sleepless William.
"Hey! William! I have a quick question for you. So I was taking this really great nap earlier and I.." click.
Ori just grinned at us and pulled the phone away from his ear.
"He hung up on me.."
I had to look away to hide the smile. Ori loved fucking with Sleepless William, and despite myself, I found it hilarious.

He dialed again, and I could hear someone pick up the other end. "Fucking.. you talk to him." then another voice came on the line, a woman's voice, and she was laughing."Heeey Grigori. Whatsup?"
"Hey Heather. William isn't too pissed is he?" Or asked without a shred of apology in his voice.
"Naw, he'll get over it." She replied. "What can I do for you?"
"Well, I uh.. had a weird dream last night.. skeletons draining the life from people.. and a roman tower in the background of a crumbling Chicago.. any ideas?"
"So the walking dead drinking from people? Sounds like vampires to me.."
"No no.. like. the skeletons were standing over the people and..ssshhhhuuurrrp.. you know? They weren't really drinking.."
Apparently, Heather was as confused by Ori's sound effects as we were, because she responded with,
"Just standing over them and ssshhhhuuurrp huh? Caaan't really help you there buddy.."
"Damn.. well.. okay, I was thinking maybe a spirit of some kind.. anyway.. do you know anything about Trajan's tower? Roman architecture?"
"Uuuuuh.. no....what?"
"Trajan's.. nevermind. Thanks for the help."
"Yeeah.. sure.. any..time?"
And she hung up. Ori looked pretty disappointed.

We kicked around ideas for awhile, and I peeked over Nadi's shoulder at the articles she was skimming, and something caught my eye. There was a point in ancient Roman history when Egypt was Rome's biggest political rival. I knew someone old enough to remember that..but when I opened my email to send a message to Rashida, the Khaibit, I already had a message from her waiting in my Inbox.

Weird. I double clicked the messge

January 10th, 2010
All Must Serve.

What the fuck did that mean?

Giovanni noticed my perplexed expression. "What is it?"

I read the email to them then asked, "Does anyone know the significance of January 10th?"

Nobody shrugged. "Court maybe?"

Why would Rashida reference the next Court? She didn't even live in Chicago.. but it wasn't a bad suggestion, so I pulled out my phone and shot off a text to Deuce. I'd been avoiding Court since we'd moved out of Maury's place, so I wasn't sure of the dates. He confirmed that there was, in fact, Court being held tomorrow at the Shedd Aquarium.

"January 10th was the day Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon." Nadi interjected suddenly.

"Wait.. what?" My voice betrayed my sudden feeling of unease.

She read us the excerpt. "The river is notable as Roman law forbade any General from crossing the Rubicon with a legion. The river marked the boundary between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul to the north and Italy proper to the south; the law thus protected the republic from internal military threat. A Roman General was thus obliged to disband his army before crossing the Rubicon, otherwise both he and his men were guilty of high treason and sacrilege, and automatically condemned to death. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army in 49 BC, supposedly on January 10 of the Roman calendar, to make his way to Rome, he broke that law and made armed conflict inevitable. According to historian Suetonius, Caesar uttered the famous phrase ālea iacta est..meaning,"

Gio interrupted her. "The die has been cast."

She nodded.

I scowled and shut my computer. "I don't like this. It's way too coincidental."
"You should know better. There is no such thing." Gio chastised.

"Well I'm going to go talk to Volkas. Maybe he knows something." Ori suddenly announced. It was a decent idea, and no one else had any better ones, so we all went with him.

I was surprised at how quickly we all jumped to action because of a simple dream. It was either because we were all very concerned.. or we'd all been very bored. Probably a little of both. It was frightening to think that we all got our rocks off by putting ourselves in danger on a constant basis.


The coffee pot sat on the warmer, dregs of the last pot burning to the bottom of the glass. Giovanni paused to make more before we approached the table where Volkas sat, dozens of newspapers spread out before him. He was looking through them at a hurried pace, muttering to himself in Polish. Something seemed to be bothering him.

"What is it I can do for you?" He said to us, without looking up.

"Our furry friend had a weird dream we need some insight on." Gio said, pushing Ori to the front.
Volkas set down his pen. "Dream? eh.. I will try, but I am not Cahalith. What is your dream?"
Ori took a moment to describe to him what he had already showed us. Volkas paused in his review of the papers, looking dubious.
"Skeletons sucking live out of people. Walking dead, yes?" He looked at me, but I just shrugged. It was likely it was symbolism for vampires, but I really had no clue.

"Well, I mean.. maybe.. but it might be something else...what about the roman architecture?" Ori said, skeptical.
"Yes, because I know all about roman architecture and the living dead. Give me a moment and I will prepares a lecture on the issue with my large amount of expertise."

I managed to suppress my laughter before it escaped and ruined my humorless facade.

"Do you not know of anyone else who might know more about the roman architecture? Because I do not know much. I focus on the stocks.." Volkas gestured to the papers in front of him.

"Well.. I don't.. but Harper might.." Giovanni gave me a pointed look. It took me a second to understand who he was referring too. I didn't feel like laughing anymore.

"Fuck you Giovanni. No. I will not talk to Solomon Birch just because he might know something about Rome. Forget it."

Nobody smirked at me, he thought he had my number when he said, "What if he's our only lead?"

I crossed my arms over my chest and glared. "What exactly do you propose I say? 'Oh hey, Birchy, sorry to disturb you, but do you know anything about Trajan's Tower? Why? Oh, no reason..just curious is all.' Yeah. I'm sure Birch would be very forthcoming." I scowled at him and leaned against a book shelf.

"What are you looking for?" Nadi said quietly to Volkas, joining the conversation.
Volkas turned and gestured to the piles of papers. "Patterns. I watch stocks.. find patterns.. but it makes no sense. Stocks of stable companies have fallen for no reason. Cannot figure out why this is. Very strange."

That piqued everyone's interest. "What stocks?" Gio asked.

"Technology firms, mostly." Volkas said.

Gio leaned over the werewolf's shoulder. "Any of them owned by the family?"
"I do not think so, unless they are shells set up long ago, before I started watching. Here." Volkas grabbed a piece of paper and began writing out some information. He spoke while he wrote. "Beshilu have been very quiet too. It is unusual."
"Like someone made a deal with them?" Gio asked with another significant look in my direction.
"What? Giuseppe?" I made a disparaging noise in my throat. "Unlikely."
"You said it yourself that he did it before." Gio pointed out.
I shrugged. "Its a possibility, but that was minor. Remember what Volkas said about deals with the Beshilu before."

Gio remained unconvinced.

My eyes flicked to each person in the room, individually, scanning auras as I went. II watched auras more often than I didn't.. this wasn't an unusual occurrence, but it was worth mentioning this time.. I was in for a surprise tonight. As my eyes wandered to Nadi, I watched as her aura sparked, flickered.. and then exploded outward in a wash of color, leaving behind nothing in its place. I jumped back, caught utterly off guard.

"What the fuck did you just do?!" I exclaimed loudly, the quiet of the library making it sound positively thunderous. She just gave me that blank, impassive look.
"What do you mean?"
I stared at her, then looked at everyone else.. all their auras were still present. They swam with colors of confusion and amusement. Nadi's was just..gone. Slowly, I forced myself to relax. "Nothing.. don't worry about it."

Everyone just looked at me like I was nuts. I kept sneaking glances at the mage. Her lack of aura completely unnerved me. She was already enough of an unknown as it was, able to completely hide what she was thinking and feeling.. and now I didn't even have my normal recourse to judge what was on her mind. I wasn't sure how to deal with that. It also made me suspicious.. why had she done that at all?

I decided to ignore it as best I could for now and focus on the issues at hand. It was difficult.

"What are the companies that have the crashing stocks?" Giovanni asked once my outburst was finished.
Volkas handed him the piece of paper and spoke while Gio was reading it. "Very strange. Those stocks.. always been strong. Never a bad day. No reason for them to be falling.. usually.. media coverage over something like this.. but no.. nothing to explain this." He sounded worried.
Gio frowned and mulled over the paper. He handed it to me, and I did the same. It got passed around the room. None of the companies looked familiar.

Allette, Inc (ALEA)
Icon Technologies, Inc (IACTA)
East Summit R&D (EST)

They were all technology companies, but all focused on different areas of the industry. They weren't closely related.. not even slightly. But as Nobody was puzzling over it, I had an idea. I snatched it back from him. "The codes..the Nasdaq abbreviations.." I looked at it again and began to piece it together. Giovanni grabbed it from me, and I let him.

"Son of a Bitch.." he grabbed a pen and wrote out the symbols by themselves.


"ālea iacta est." Giovanni said aloud. We all fell completely silent. Tension in the room rose drastically.
"The die has been cast.." Gio murmured. Then, in an attempt to break the foreboding gloom, just stuffed the piece of paper in his pocket and shrugged. "I guess a month reprieve is all we get from the weird shit."

I latched on to the more light-hearted turn of conversation, attempting to forestall the uncomfortable feeling of worry growing in my chest. I forced an amused smirk. "Gio, a month for us is nearly long enough to be considered a sabbatical."

Volkas frowned down at his papers. "So this was message.. but I do not think message was for me. Who could make such a message?"
"For us, maybe?" Nobody suggested.
I dismissed that with a wave of my hand. "Unlikely. The only reason we found it was because of Ori's dream. Too big of an unknown for it to have been directed at us.."
"Then who?" Ori asked, agitated.
No one spoke up with an answer.

"Whoever sent this.. has large power.. to make stocks drop with no reason and no news coverage? That is not easy task." Volkas said quietly.

"So what do we do now?" Ori asked, disheartened.

I said nothing. I was too busy mulling over the possibilities.

"Well.. I could call Bella, see if she saw anything.. she's a Cahalith too." Gio suggested as he brought out the cell phone. No one had any other suggestions on where to go from here, so he dialed his sister. I felt like we were running all over town looking for someone to tell us what to do. I didn't like it.

I heard her angry and curt voice pick up the phone. "You have exactly 10 seconds to tell me why I shouldn't just hang up on you. I'm busy."

Giovanni's face darkened, his aura flashed with irritation and anger. His voice became just as terse as hers. "Our Cahalith had a dream about the city of Chicago being overrun by skeletons eating people and the city burning down and being replaced by perfect, tainted, white marble. Seeing as we thought we'd taken care of that problem, we figured it was fucking important."

There was a pause. Then, "Meet me at the new office." And she hung up.

Gio frowned and shoved his phone in his pocket. "Crazy Bitch."

So we left Volkas and headed there. The place had been cleaned up since we'd flushed out the old occupants. One would never know it had been the sight of a battle for the life of the city. The guards waved us in. When we reached the top floors, every thing was a bustle of activity. Bella wasn't in sight.

We could hear people yelling behind the big, heavy office doors.
Gio limped up to them. "Hey, Ori.. open these for me."
"No knocking?" I asked with a small smirk.
Gio snorted. "Fuck no."
Ori put both hands against the heavy wood and shoved. His muscles strained with effort, but the doors swung open.

Vittorio and Sansome were inside, arguing. They didn't even look up as we walked in. Giovanni pulled out a lighter and lit a cigarette.

Vittorio, once again assuming the role of the feeble old man, looked up from his wheel chair and frowned at Giovanni. "Can you not smoke in here? I'm on oxygen!"

Gio smiled and limped over to the desk. "Its electric." He held up the e-cig. Vittorio rolled his eyes. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one Giovanni fucked with on a regular basis. Sansome nodded to all of us and left.

"So whats going on?" Gio asked, gesturing to the hallway were people were hurrying too and fro.

"Wish I knew. Something is going on, but I don't know what it is. What are you guys doin' here?"

"I had a weird dream.. we were hoping someone here could help me figure it out." Ori said. He described the dream to Vittorio, who shrugged.
"I don't know what it means, but something big is coming our way. I got this letter from family in Italy. He says we should get our people off the streets." He looked directly at me. "Your boss agrees."

I just raised a brow, but said nothing. I had nothing useful to add. My time was better spent adsorbing the information.

Vittorio handed the letter to Giovanni. It was written in Italian, so Gio had to read it aloud for the rest of us.

"One of our boats left port two days ago, unscheduled. There was no manifest, and it wasn't supposed to be at sea for another week. Eye witnesses saw a woman directing 12 men loading a large crate onto the ship. The men looked strange. They looked like someone had cross brew them with pitbulls- large heads and a stocky upper body, but with arms that looked too long for the rest of them. We didn't get a description of the woman.

That's all we know. Something big is coming your way. Keep the family off the streets.


Something occurred to me. A thought that made me very uneasy. I suspected that the woman might have been Rashida.. but I had no proof, only the evidence of coincidence. I kept my mouth shut.

"That's it?" Gio asked.
"That's it." Vittorio confirmed.

"So what are you going to do?" I asked softly.

"Get my people off the streets." Vittorio said matter of factly.
Ori shifted uncomfortably. "Does that include me?"
Vittorio turned his chair to regard the other werewolf. "You're part of the family.. but only as much as you wanna be, kid. I'd say yeah, stay off the streets, but you can do what you want. One more black sheep in the family ain't gonna make a difference, as far as I'm concerned."

"Bah bah.." Gio interjected as he reread the letter to himself.

"We need some eyes on the docks." I said suddenly.
Ori grinned. "I can probably get into the security system, rig up the cameras.."
I grimaced, skeptical. "You think the docks will have cameras in all the areas we need?"
"Well what else are we going to do?" Ori said, somewhat defensively.
"Vittorio, when is the ship due in?" I asked.
"Don't know. We don't have any info other than what was in that note.." He said.
I ran through all the people I knew who might know anything about the docks, and came up with one name. Dumptruck Ned. "You know.. let me make a call."
"Yeah.. I got someone who may know something too.." Nobody added.

No one said what we were all thinking. That this was a bad idea. What we should do was lay low, and see how it all played out.. but we couldn't. This was our city now, and Ori's dream had us all concerned for its safety, once again. We'd get to the bottom of what ever the fuck was going on. As far as bad ideas went, it wasn't our worst, not by a long shot.

Ori decided that it would be a smart idea to go bother Bella, who had appeared outside the office barking orders at people.

"What?!" She demanded, whirling on him, aura swirling with rage.. more than normal.
"Did you have a dream too?" He asked nervously. "I can't figure out what it all means."
"My dreams are none of your business." She snarled.
Ori took a step back from the crazy bitch. He wasn't so much intimidated, as he was just at a loss on how to deal with the overly pissed Bella.

So Gio tried his hand instead, since it was slightly less likely to get bitten off.
"Look, we're trying to help. Any insight you could give us would make the situation easier. Just tell us what you saw."
"I'm taking care of it." She growled.
"That's great, but we need information." Gio pressed.
"I didn't have any fucking dreams!" Bella yelled, balled her hands into fists, and stalked away, heavy footfalls practically shaking the floor.

So that's why she was so much angrier than usual... I watched her aura as she went, a swirl of conflicted emotions, all overlaid by a crushing rage. She looked like a walking time bomb.

Ori broke the tense silence, tearing his eyes away from Bella, and turning back to the rest of us. "Well that box was huge if it needed 12 guys to move it..it would be hard to hide, right? We could call around, ask if anyone has seen it."
I dismissed that with a wave of my hand. "Its easier to hide than you'd think. I could hide it, given the time."
"Really? Damn.." Ori looked thoughtful.
"We're going to have to go check it out ourselves." Giovanni said.

Nobody hung up his cell and walked back over to the group. "Roy works on the docks. I just set up a meeting with him. He may be able to help."

I pulled out my own phone and started to dial a number. "Lets go, then."

So we left, and I called Ned on the way over to Roy's.

"Hi Ned.. How you doing?"
"Sam as ever, what's up?"
"I need information concerning the docks.. there is a boat coming in that's not on any manifest, carrying some mystery cargo.." I began, but he cut me off.
"That's not really my area of expertise, Harper."
"In and of itself, no. But you deal in hiding things.. and that's what I'm calling about. The boat is carrying a huge box that will need some safe, secret place to be held. Do you know of any in that area?"
His voice took on an annoyed edge to it. "Your asking me to give up hiding spots? If I told you, they wouldn't be secret hiding places anymore."

We piled into the cars. I held the phone with my shoulder and started the engine.

"Not one of your hiding places. I know better than that, Ned.. but I figured you might know of someone else's..." I let the question hang there.
I could hear him considering a moment, then finally he said, "So what are you offering for me to give this up?"
It was my turn to pause and consider. He had charged us 20k for the pickup and securing of the documents from Yousef's.. and this was only information. However, it was potentially dangerous information for him to give out. I knew Giovanni still had a big chuck of cash.. and it didn't hurt to be generous to my informants..
"12,000 and a favor to be named later."

"12k and a favor.." He paused to consider.. it wasn't a long pause. "Did you know there was a fire in that district a few years back? A lot of the warehouses destroyed. But there was one place that never went up. All the buildings around it were blazing, but it didn't get so much as scorched. Number 856."
I took out a pen and jotted down the information. "Thanks, Ned."
He hung up. I made a mental note to get him his money in the next couple days.

We pulled up to Roy's place. He lived within walking distance to the docks. When we knocked, he answered the door in a bathrobe, looking half asleep. "Hey..c'mon in"

We filed in, and Nobody filled Roy in on what we were looking for. He got very alert, very quickly.

"Come with me." Roy grabbed his huge wretch that I was accustomed to seeing with him at all times.

We walked down to the docks and stood in front of a locked gate.

"The ship your talking about docked last night." Roy said, pointing to a boat, docked 100 yards away.
Ori's eyes went wide. "What? But it left Italy two days ago!"
I stayed on task. "Did you see what was on it?"
Roy shrugged. "Naw, they cleared us all out. Whatever it was, it wasn't normal procedure. We didn't see anything.."

We regarded the msytery ship from behind the gate. From here, it looked totalyl mundane. But if they'd cleared all the workers out of the area, something was definitely going on.

Roy looked at all of us and sighed, theatrically. "I'd go in there with you, but.." He gestured widely with his arms. "There's just nothing I can do, I got a job to protect.. I mean.. I just can't help.." and he brought his hands down to hang at his sides in a gesture of defeat.. but not before his wrench clanged loudly off the padlock on the gate and it clattered to the ground.

"See you guys later." And Roy left.

We watched him go, waiting for him to get out of sight before taking advantage of his parting gift.


The boat itself looked innocent enough, moored and silent, one guard pacing the deck. We stood hidden by a few large crates and debated what to do, speaking in low voices.

"I see 3 living things on the ship.." Nadi muttered.
Ori set himself up among the crates, in an area where he had full sight of the deck of the ship. He leveled his rifle and peered through the scope. "Damn.. that looks like one of the guys described in the letter. That asshole is UGLY."
We took turns glancing through the scope. He did indeed stand up to the description from the letter.. but his aura read completely human. Unsettling.

"They probably moved the crate off by now.. do we really need to check out the boat? Why not go find the warehouse?" I suggested.
Gio shook his head. "Its the family's boat.. I want to check it out. Besides, its practically deserted right now.. we can scope it out and see if they left any clues."
"Clues? What are you, Scoobey Doo?" I said sarcastically.
"Naw, that'd be me." Ori said with a grin.
"We're already here, might as well take advantage of it." Gio said.
"Alright. Boat it is.. Nobody and I can sneak aboard and take a look around. You guys set up down here, in case we need backup."

"Should I go up on the boat with you?" Nadi asked.
I looked at her skeptically. "How stealthy can you be?"
She looked thoughtful for a moment, honestly considering the question. "I'll stay down here."

"Have fun, Daphne." Gio said with an ingratiating grin.
"As long as none of you are Fred, I'll take that as a compliment. Daphne was the attractive one." I murmured as I stripped off my coat to prepare to slip into the icy waters of Lake Michigan. I handed my coat and gun to Becca. I kept the knives

"If we get spotted, just try to make it back into the water." I said to Nobody.
"Yeah, yeah."
Nobody and I both paused briefly, allowing the darkness to conceal around us. I was a bit surprised when he did it.. I didn't know he could use some of the same tricks I used. It hardly mattered. We needed to get around to the other side of the boat, to avoid being spotted by the guard.

We were able to scale one of the mooring lines with little incident, and the boat was mostly deserted. We slipped past the ugly as fuck guard, who looked much more imposing from up close, and made our way into the cargo area. The ship creaked and groaned at our passing, moving gently in the water.

There were boxes stacked everywhere, as you'd expect.. but no sign of the large crate described in the letter. There was, however, a space where the crate had been. It was 8 feet wide and 10 feet long. My mind raced with the possibilities of what could be housed in such a large container.

Having found where the cargo was not, Nobody and I headed back up to the deck. There were a few other areas we still needed to check.

That's where we got made. We were creeping silently across the metal floor when we both felt it start to shake. Loud, pounding boot falls came from behind us. We turned in time to see two of the guards bearing down on us, following the wet footprints we had been leaving, unbeknown to us, in our wake.

Stealth be damned, we made a break for it. We bolted for the railing, both jumped for it, still several feet away from the edge. Right before he made it over, a guard slammed into Nobody and knocked him onto the deck in a flying tackle.

I grabbed the rails before I fell into the water and swung myself back up in a rare show of athleticism. I wasn't about to leave him behind.

Maybe I should have.. because right as my feet met the ground, I also got tackled to the fucking floor. The guard sat on me, pinning my legs and holding me by the throat. Nobody was pinned in a similar fashion, except the giant of a man had both Nobody's wrists held down in one hand.

I had two options. Wrestle with the huge guy, who was obviously ridiculously stronger than me.. or cut a bitch.

I chose option B. I had a knife in my hand and was dragging it across his face faster than he could blink. It should have been a deep and painful gash.. but it wasn't. It felt like trying to slice through hide, rather than human skin. He grunted and turned his head away as a thin trickle of blood oozed from a cut that would probably only need a few stitches, instead of a wound that cut half his face off.

I had just enough time to realize we were well and truly fucked before he removed one hand from my throat, balled it into a fist the size of a Christmas ham, and punched me right in the fucking teeth. I felt several bones in my face fracture (and a few teeth shatter), and saw stars when the back of my head snapped back so forcefully against the metal ship deck that the noise resonated through the entire boat. I think he said something to me, in Italian, but I couldn't tell over the ringing in my ears.

I was trying to think of a way out of this mess through the cacophony in my head when Giovanni landed beside us in his demon form, and folded his wings against his back.

Thaddeus the Khaibit landed beside him, looking rather pissed. No one was throwing punches.

"What do you want?" He demanded.

"You stole my family's boat, we wanted to figure out what was going on." Giovanni said, his voice deeper and more commanding than usual. It was also very angry.

"That was foolish of you." Thaddeus sneered. He waved his hand, and the two guards released us. Nobody and I got to our feet, (me, a bit shaky) just as Ori and Nadi walked up the gangplank.. with Rashida. I'd have been more proud of my deductive abilities if I could think past the shard of bone lodged in the back of my right eye.

"We needed it." Rashida said simply with a cryptic smirk.

I put one hand on either side of my nose and shifted it back into place with a painful and audible POP. The blood did the rest. I coaxed it to repair my nose, and the fragile bones in my face and tried not to curse like a sailor at the pain.

"What did you need it for?" Gio demanded.

"It was a..family matter. We are done with it now." Rashida was staring at me.

"The family doesn't know whats going on." Gio protested, fists clenched at his sides, glaring daggers at her.

"Not your family, Santore..." She gestured casually to me. "Yours." My only response was to frown in confusion. A Khaibit matter? Rashida's gaze met mine, and I felt like she was trying to bore holes in the back of my skull.

"All must serve.." She repeated the cryptic message, and it came out sounding foreboding as she continued to hold my gaze. "We will see you in court." She suddenly broke eye contact and turned to regard everyone. "As heroes of this city, perhaps you should all attend.."

Then darkness coalesced around them both.. and they were gone.

Giovanni immediately pulled out his cell phone and called Vittorio to tell him we had the boat back.

All must serve.. that made me nervous. I knew that, historically, the khaibit were a bloodline of servants. First to the Cult of Set, battling the evil in the night.. and now to anyone with the right budget. I had no desire to be someone's hired help. I felt much more comfortable taking on the more traditional role. But Rashida's words rang in my ears and felt heavy in my mind. What were they planning?

"So.. what do we do now?" Ori asked.

"We go to court." I said simply.

But I knew there would be nothing simple about it.

July 23, 2010

Even more Secret Secret Societies

Father Nico answered on the second ring. "Hello Harper, what can I do for you?"

"How are you this evening?" It behooved me to be polite..

"Well, as most others.."

"I'd like to speak with you in person...tonight, if you have the time."


I paused, considering. Father Nico would more than likely know what I was talking about without having to spell it all out.."The Five of Coins, and the significance of the Blue Dragon."

"So this is Order business? Not personal?"

Personally important.. but it was Order business, regardless. "Right."

His voice and demeanor changed so suddenly that I didn't even have time to react. The friendly, easy to talk to priest vanished, and what sounded like a completely different priest with Father Nico's voice said the next words.

"You will arrive in two hours. Wear the proper attire, supplicant." And he hung up on me.

I sat there a moment, stunned. I had not known Father Nico for very long, but I'd never heard him give an order. I'd never heard his voice so cold and direct, either. It was like he'd put on a mask once it became 'official business'.

Or perhaps took a mask off. I was acutely reminded of how little I knew about the ancient vampire.

Once his words sunk in and I got past the sudden shift, I became a little perturbed. He'd called me supplicant. I wasn't usually hung up on titles, but I was pretty proud of my advancement in the Coils. I hadn't been able to claim the title of Scholar of the Untamed Hunger for very long, but I was pretty certain Nico knew it.

However, I wasn't going to correct him. I was going there, asking for instruction and information. He was not only centuries older than me, he was also of significant;y higher rank within the Order. He could call me what he wanted, though it didn't mean I had to like it.

Then I spent the next 10 minutes mentally berating myself for giving a shit about titles at all.

After that, I got to work figuring out what the 'proper attire' was. Thankfully, that didn't take long. I remembered reading something about it in the Rites of the Dragon.. I retrieved the old book from its hidey hole, and flipped to the appropriate page.

Apparently, I should wear brown. I dug through my closet. I had a few sets of brown clothing.. but it didn't seem quite appropriate. I had the feeling this was going to be rather ritualistic. I spotted the robes I'd worn at the monastery in Japan near the back. I took them out and laid them on the bed, then sat on the floor and took the remaining time I had left to meditate.. and get into the right frame of mind. I didn't usually have the patience for ritual, and I knew it. Preparing myself would go a long way to help prevent me from making a fucking fool of myself.

When the time came, I left the room and headed out. I didn't pass anyone on the way, so I didn't have to deal with any obnoxious questions.


All the lights in the church were out, save for one candle. Instinctually, I didn't want to approach that candle.. but it seemed rather pointless to skulk in the shadows all night when there was someone waiting to let me inside. It was a young priest, one I'd seen in passing a few times before. He didn't say a word to me as he opened the door and motioned me inside. He took me into a study, removed a few books from a shelf, and the bookcase slid sideways to reveal a dark passage.

I was starting to feel like I was in a spy movie.

He held out the candle to me. I can see in the dark, but I figured the candle was significant somehow, so I took it from him. I stepped inside, and he left.

The first thing I noticed, oddly, was the smell. Incense. Since I wasn't breathing, that was particularly odd, but it seemed to creep up my nose despite a lack on inhalation. It was strong, but not unpleasant. In front of me was a long winding staircase that went down into what I presumed would be a chamber at the bottom.

There was a very faint red glow coming from below me, but the stairs themselves were dark, save for my single candle. I gave the stairs a cursory once over before proceeding down, and noticed more candles adorned the walls, one on each side, spaced a few steps apart. The wicks had never been burned. They looked like they had been placed here just for this occasion. So despite my distaste for open flame, I began lighting them as I walked down the stairs.

I was surprised to find that I could smell them, even through the incense. They weren't made from wax, but from tallow.. rendered fat, though I wasn't quite sure how I knew that.. it seemed significant, but I had no idea how.

I went down the stairs in a criss-cross pattern in order to light all the candles. I noticed that the stairs, while covered with a threadbare carpet, had blue tiles that seemed to form a pattern. The carpet obscured most of it, but I had an idea what it might be.

I could hear nothing but the faint sound of a low fire in the chamber below me.

When I made it to the bottom, I saw the room was small and held two braziers, the thin smoke of incense wafting from them. There was a doorway on the far side of the room. As I approached it, my candle suddenly went out. The room was lit only by the smoldering coals in the braziers, and the glow from the candles lining the staircase that did not reach far beyond the arch I had just entered through.

Father Nicolai's voice echoed through the small chamber.

"Who walks the path?"

"Harper O'Shea," I paused, biting back the urge to give my normal title. "Supplicant."

"When do you walk the path?" I couldn't tell where his voice was coming from. but I knew from my studies the correct answer to the question.

"In the Twilight.."

"What do you seek?"
I hesitated. The question was unexpected. Little did I know, all the others would be as well. So I answered as honestly as I could. "Knowledge."

"Good." The voice came from my left. As I turned, I could see the faint silhouette of Father Nico framed in a small alcove I had not noticed before. I turned to face him, still holding the extinguished candle. My night vision allowed me to see that he wore formal robes, adorned with an azure sash that hung around his neck. There was a stiff formality to his demeanor.. but there was to mine as well, so I couldn't judge.

"You have been tested, both by your sire, and by your actions since your arrival in Chicago. You have sought out mysteries and recovered several items of great power."

He paused, regarding me.

"But tell me, what have you learned of your companions?"

I stopped to consider before answering. "They're generally good people, though their methods tend to fall short of upstanding, the intentions are good. They're loyal, and brave, if also annoying and foolhardy.."

Father Nicolai's eyes narrowed slightly. His body language told me he wasn't happy with my response. "I ask for specifics, and you give me generalities. What have you learned?"

I hesitated. I could go on for hours about most of them, but I just wasn't sure how much detail he really wanted. I was floundering. I had been completely unprepared for this.

"Giovanni is a member of the Santore crime family, and an arrogant ass. He's a Lucifuge, so he is demon blooded, and thinks of everyone around him as a tool for him to use. He might very well be going insane, as it is, he has become obsessed with inventing useful tools using what appears to be mostly fringe science...Nobody is an assassin for the court of Autumn and is rather good at his job. He is a mirrorskin, able to take on anyone's appearance. He's trying desperately to fill the shoes Frost left behind, and is scared shitless about going insane, which is apparently something that plagues many changelings. He's good with stealth, knives, and generally any other sneaky behavior. He's not above killing to advance his agenda, yet also seems to have some compulsion to protect helpless people that perplexes me..Nadi.. I don't know much about. She was a college student, now a mage. She seems particularly adept at Death magic.. but at least a bit knowledgeable about several other forms as well. She is reserved, quiet, and enjoys learning. I have no idea what her motivations may be. As for Ori.. he's a werewolf, a Cahalith Bone Shadow, specifically. He's now a member of the Santore pack, but seems to find more comfort in us, than in them. he seems leery of his own kind, and goes out of his way to avoid them usually, which I find odd for a pack animal. He trusts too easily."

I fell silent. Nicolai's body language did not improve.

"How will you protect them."

"Any way I can." The answer came out before I had a chance to think about it. Nico just stared at me, silently. I inhaled and exhaled slowly, and tried again. I didn't know what he wanted.. specifics? How could I know all the potential threats that might come up?

So I tried something a little more specific, but it still fell short of what Nico was looking for, apparently. "I'd obtain more knowledge concerning their enemies, and focus on exploited their weaknesses, as well as improve myself to make this a viable option.."

Still no signs of approval. I felt like I was blundering through a room of furniture blindfolded, continually banging my shins on the same low coffee table.

"How would you destroy them?"

I was again caught off guard by the question. My mind was racing, trying to figure out what the right answers to his questions were.

"Nobody relies on his job and reputation to give him the identity he needs, since his appearance is so fluid. I would put up surveillance in order to intercept his orders from the Court and cause him to fail his assignments, damaging his reputation. I'd plant cold iron on him, to cause the other changelings to distrust him even more. I'd put him in situations that would force him to enter the hedge on a regular basis, and plant thoughts in his mind to question his sanity. I would take away his reputation, identity, and sanity until he was s useless madman." I was surprised at my own words even as they came out, surprised I'd even thought all those things about someone who I considered an ally, even if he was annoying as fuck.

Nico just stood silently and waited for me to continue.

"Grigori.. I could simply stab him in the back with silver given his propensity to trust us so easily.. but that would just be killing.. not so much destroying.." I paused a moment to think before continuing. "He feels like he has found a place to belong, here. First, I would set up a series of accounts and deals that made it look to the Santore's like he was betraying them, working with their enemies. They would turn into a thorn in his side, if not kill him themselves.. I would sow seeds of doubt about the others.. Nobody could screw with his dreams..."

"You would use the changeling then?" Nico asked.

I nodded. "It would be easy enough to bride Nobody to change his dreams into visions of betrayal and lies.. Nobody enjoys fucking with people, and I should be able to convince him to do it, if he thinks its just to give the wolf a hard time.. I'd make Ori doubt it all, and send him into a depression, taking away everything he's achieved.."

I stopped there for a moment. The next person on the list was Giovanni. I had to think long and hard about that one, and the plan that I came up with was shaky at best.. but it was all I could think of as I stood before Father Nicolai.

"Giovanni's downfall is his pride. It fuels him, and keeps him going. He has to be able to protect those he cares about, and if he can't, it will damage that pride, that fuel. I would begin to take away those he cares about, render him unable to help them in any fashion, destroy his pride, and render him ineffectual." I felt the answer was lacking.. but on the spot, it was, sadly, the best I could come up with.

"As for the mage.." I grimaced. "I honestly don't have any clue."

"So you do not know how you would destroy the mage?" He asked.
I blinked in surprise.

He continued. "Are you willing to learn things that you ought not know?"
I fought down the smirk. "Yes, I look for those things especially."
"Are you willing to be taught by one who does the same?"
I wondered what it was he knew that he shouldn't.. considering his age, probably quite a few things. "Yes."
"Are you willing to forsake your other teacher to learn these things?"
"Yes." I lied before I even thought about it. Inwardly, I cringed.. he'd see through it. It was a mistake to lie to him.. but it had jumped from my mouth before I'd had a chance to stop it. Giovanni was rubbing off on me. I needed to be more careful.

"Do you swear to aid me in any way I see fit in my pursuit of the Great Work, until I, and only I, decide that you have progressed enough to pursue your own version of the Great work?"
I nodded slowly. "I do."

He reached over and threw a fine dust on the smoldering coals beneath the brazier. They flared with white fire. I managed not to flinch.
"Remove your robes." He ordered.

I slipped off the brown robe, folded it and placed it in his out stretched hand. He placed it over the now burning fire, and the cloth began to burn. The smell of burning wool mixed with the incense, which made it less tolerable, rather than more. I felt more comfortable in my street clothes now then I had in the old robes.

Nicolai held out his hand to me, and in it was a dark blue choker, adorned with a simple silver ouroboros. I took it from him.

"Welcome to the Sworn of the Dying Light, Apprentice O'Shea. This will be the indication of your station. You're training will begin tonight. You have.. much to learn. First, you must admit your faults. You seek to discredit, and inconvenience the changeling.. kill the werewolf.. and injure the Lucifuge.. but you failed to explain how to destroy any of them. There was only once that you admitted that you did not know how to accomplish this. You were willing to forsake useful teachers in order to learn other secrets...both of these things are foolish."

I inwardly cursed myself. Meditation hadn't helped, I'd still managed to make a fucking fool of myself. He continued.

"If you are asked again whether you would give up such a thing and you must answer yes, you better be certain that you are lying." He leveled a glare at me that told me he knew exactly how truthful I'd already been.

"I have not taken on an apprentice for a long time, and I do not teach fools."

I nodded, and once against felt like I'd embarrassed myself greatly.

"You will remain here until one hour before sunrise. Breath deeply, and think on these things."

He departed up the stairs and I heard the door slide shut behind him.

I sat down on stone floor and tried not to beat myself up. I'd fucked up.. but I could learn from my failure. Berating myself did me little good.

The incense became more and more over powering. I inhaled deeply and felt the heavy air sting my nose, throat and lungs. It made my head swim and I had to fight to stay conscious. The smell overwhelmed all my other senses, I felt blind, deaf, and mute.

Amidst the incense, I realized that I had had a hard time articulating things that I already knew, and a difficult time admitting what I didn't know. I had much work to do, in that regard. I felt lucky that Nico was willing to take me on at all.

I sat in that room for hours. Eventually, I began to taste copper in the back of my throat as I breathed the smoke. I felt thick tears pool in my ducts then slide slowly down my cheeks. Normal smoke would make any normal persons eyes water, but these vapors were going further than that. I was weeping blood. My insides constricted harshly in hunger, despite my recent feeding.

After what seemed like an eternity, I heard a chime from high above me. The noise shocked me out of my trance, it was the first noise, aside from the smoke, I had heard since Nico left. I swan back up to the surface through the haze of incense. I heard the door above me slide open. It was nearly sunrise.

I staggered to my feet and up the stairs. When I reached the top, and the door shut behind me, I gasped, taking in as much of the clean air as I could to purge my lungs of the infectious incense. The air was abnormally cold. The first breath was pure and clean, the second stung my throat, it was so chill, and the third breath was so frigid it caused me to cough violently, a fine red mist erupting from my throat and freezing instantly.

I was completely famished. The last time I had been this hungry had been in Japan, staying among the Mekhet at the monastery.

But beneath the desperate, clawing, raving hunger, I noticed something. I could feel the vitae in my body.. what little was left.. and it felt different.. thicker.. more substantial. I smiled faintly and quickly made my way back to the car, and drove myself to the shop as the sky began to lighten.

When I walked in, Giovanni was awake, tinkering with something on his work bench. He glanced up briefly and looked me over critically. "What, did you have a date or something?"
I pictures how I must look. Normal street clothes, but the choker was new, I wrecked of potent incense, still had traces of bloody tears on my cheeks, and probably seemed either very embarrassed with myself, or smugly proud.. but probably a combination of both.

I just gave him a small, cryptic smile. "Something like that."
He bent back over his project."Bet you sucked him dry eh?" He paused, and looked up again with a pained expression. "Sorry, my jokes are bad at 6am."
My smile shifted from cryptic to mildly amused. "Only at 6am?"
He grinned at me. "They're worse any other time."
I just shook my head and walked past him to the basement stairs, heading for bed.

"I can certainly agree with that."

July 16, 2010

Like Sire like Childe

((This is current time line. After the battle with Citysmith.))

I woke up to darkness. It wasn't unusual, my room was in the basement, and my door didn't allow much through it. But this darkness was thicker than usual, and felt familiar.

I sat up and swung my legs off the bed. There was someone sitting in the arm chair across the small coffee table. Giuseppe.

He was shuffling a deck of cards that looked too large to be normal playing cards. He spoke without preamble.

"I command you to torture a captured prisoner so as to intimidate his comrades. Do you obey? Or refuse?"

I was used to situations like this by now, and gathered my wits about me pretty quick. It wasn't an actual command.. This was a test of some sort.. and it felt familiar. I slid off the bed and settled in the chair opposite him. I considered the question. I would go to great lengths to find another way to get the job done.. but that wasn't the question. I thought back to when we'd been attacked by Valkyrie. I would've resorted to torture, had my other methods not worked. I didn't like the idea, but I recognized its necessity at times.

"I'd obey."

He took a card off the deck and laid it face up on the coffee table. Ah. Tarot cards. Something clicked in my head, a memory falling into place. I'd taken this test before, when I'd first been inducted into the Order. Giuseppe had not administered it, though. I wondered why he was giving it to me again. I'd been under the impression that it was a 'new member only' kind of deal.

He continued

"You have pursued a traitor against your king for many years. At long last, you bring her to bay, only to have everyone around her swear solemn oaths and offer persuasive evidence that she has amended her ways and now leads a righteous and loyal existence. Do you punish her for the crimes she committed long
ago, or do you give her a second chance?"

"Give her a second chance." but watch her like a hawk. I don't forgive easily, or often, but I have my moments..

He placed a card in another location on the coffee table.

"You have evidence that a powerful lord has committed treason. He is ensconced in a fortress, and removing him will be difficult and dangerous. But it will cost him time, men and money if you make your attack, so he offers riches, titles and territory to me if you will overlook his previous betrayal...do you attack, or do you accept his terms?"

"I attack." I'd be loath to let him bribe me to ignore a betrayal.

He placed another card on the table. He placed a card on the table after each question. Sometimes in a new position, sometimes on top of another card.

"You know a woman has been falsely imprisoned. DO you implore the judges to reconsider her sentence — a process that may take months — or do you offer to take her place as a surety."

This one required less thought. I wasn't altruistic enough to put myself in prison for someone else, wrongfully imprisoned or not. I had shit to do. "Implore the judges." Besides, I could break them out later, if need be.

"You have sworn total loyalty to your master. He orders you to rob a poor man for the benefit of a rich one. Do you remain true to your oath, or do you refuse?"

I mulled over this one for awhile. If Giuseppe told me to do this, would I? Probably.. if only because I trusted it was necessary. The situation could always be rectified later if need be.

"Stay true to my oath."

"You are sent to parley with a violent and intolerant tribe. Their customs call for the imbibing of strong drink. You have chosen to abstain from such liquors. Do you drink in order to make peace with the tribe, or do you decline?"

"Drink." I said without hesitation.

"After a lengthy pursuit, you catch up with your enemy, only to find that a fall from a horse has left both his legs and one of his arms useless forever. Do you avenge yourself, or do you decide your enemy is no longer a threat and let him

I knew all too well that an enemies mind could be much more dangerous than his arms or legs. "I avenge myself."

"You have confessed a sin, and your priest imposes a penance upon you that seems disproportionately harsh. Do you meekly perform the penance, or do you avoid the penance and pray for forgiveness and understanding despite it."

This question was a little tougher to get my head around. I'd never been very religious, so I had trouble picturing myself in the situation. But ultimately I decided that if I had the faith to confess, I'd probably have the faith that the penance was just.. probably..

"Perform the penance."

"It is war, and you are on the defensive. You see
a much larger force fast approaching. Do you retreat by stealth, or do you entrench yourself and prepare to fight."

"Retreat." Live to fight another day. I was no coward, but a doomed battle is seldom worth fighting.

"A debtor has defaulted on your loan. He promises that if you but wait six months until his caravan returns, he will pay you triple what he owes. Do you take possession of his home — the loan’s collateral, or do you grant him the

"Grant him the extension." Money seemed a silly reason to take someone's home, especially if it isn't necessary..

"Your cousin is in danger of being sentenced to debtor’s prison. Do you lend her money, with little hope of repayment, or do you let her suffer the sentence?"

"Lend her the money." I don't care about many people, but I wouldn't want any of them in prison, even justly.

"You are dedicated to a noble cause, but your organization is perilously low on funds. Do you think stealing to uphold the larger cause is justified, or would you would rather see the cause fail than dishonor it with theft?"

I rolled the situation around in my head for awhile. When I came to my conclusion, I was a bit surprised with myself. I wasn't sure when I'd started to believe that the ends justified the means.. "I would steal."

"A fellow lord despises you, but you are enamored with his daughter. He is a master swordsman. Do you risk his wrath to woo his beautiful daughter?"

"Most certainly." I said with a smirk.

"Your feckless retainer, though unquestionably loyal, has failed you again. Do you give him another chance, or do you dismiss him for incompetence?"

Whats the point in having an employee if they're not getting the job done? "Dismiss him." I said with a flick my fingers.

"You have a store of seeds, and your family is starving. Do you grind up the seeds to make meal for your hungry children, or do you plant the seeds in hope of a greater yield in the spring?"

They may starve to death before spring, and feeding them now would buy me more time to solve the problem. "Grind up the seeds."

"Your innocent friend is falsely accused of a dastardly crime. Do you perjure yourself to free him, or do you remain silent but honest?"

"Perjure myself." I've never been above lying.

"A beautiful woman, whom you’ve loved from afar, offers to abandon her second husband and elope with you. Do you accept?"

"Yes." Whats the point of loving her if I didn't?

"You are judging a man accused of stealing a horse and running it until its leg had broken. It emerges that he stole the horse to get his ill child to a doctor, lest she perish. He cannot pay the horse’s value. Do you lighten his sentence, place or do you obey the letter of the law?"

"Lighten the sentence." I've never been one to follow rules unquestionably.

"After a hard war, you are ordered to break bread and make amends with old foes. Do you remain wary of your enemies and scrutinize them
for any sign of treachery, or do you make a concerted effort to obey your orders and forgive?"

"Always wary." Only a fool wouldn't be.

"You have been rewarded for your courage with lavish and extravagant gifts bestowed by a figurehead of the court. Do you keep the gifts, or do you give them away to people who will use them more wisely?"

I thought back to the sword, and the Aegis Kai Doru. I had not wanted to give that thing up. "Keep them."

"You are given the honor of hosting a feast on a beloved holiday. Do you splurge and spend to your very limit, or do you hold back and spend the barest

I frowned. I hate all or nothing questions. "I suppose since I don't have an option in the middle, I'd spend the barest minimum."

He didn't react to my qualifying statement. He placed the card and then set the deck on the table. There were seven stacks of varying sizes spread across its surface. He picked up five of them and shuffled the cards back into the deck. Then, he put the two remaining stacks next to each other and looked at me.


I looked at him, then at the stacks. "What do they represent?" I didn't recall choosing between two piles the last time I took the test.

His voice adopted a slightly harsher edge to it. "Choose."

I regarded the decks a moment, but there was nothing to go on. So I tapped the stack on the left. He picked up the pile, removed one card, and set it aside. The rest were put back into the deck. He held it out to me. "Shuffle."

I did, then handed them back. The questions began again, but took on a different tone this time, more harsh and negative. What was surprising was the fact that they also became easier for me to answer. I didn't have to think as long on each one. The answers, for the most part, just flowed. I wondered what that said about me..

"Your neighbor, preparing for a trip, leaves her car momentarily unattended. You can steal a bottle of fine brandy, or a small box of jewelry. Do you take the jewelry, or the the brandy?"


"You meet a beautiful and desirable woman who treats you with haughty disdain. Do you trick or intimidate her into bed, or do you earn her admiration so that you can reject her?"

I couldn't keep the smirk off my face. "Earn her admiration."

"Your honor is being besmirched with ridiculous calumnies. Do you spare no effort to find the source of the rumors, or do you consider it unimportant?"

I really don't give a shit what rumors people want to spread. "Unimportant."

"An irksome associate has invited you to a lavish feast. Do you gorge yourself at her expense while ignoring her company, or do you ply your host with drink, hoping she will humiliate herself?"

"Ply her with drink."

"A colleague offers to recommend an expert assassin-for-hire to slay a slippery foe of yours. Do you pay the killer’s high fee, or do you search for a less expensive alternative?"

Quality costs.. Money would be worth the surety. "Pay the fee."

"Would you crawl and beg like a spaniel to please a new lover?"

My face twisted into disgust. "Fuck no."

"A man who has wronged you flees across the ocean. He is no longer a threat, but he is now beyond your reach. Do you pursue him, or forget about him?"

"Forget about him." Until he comes back, and is once again a threat at least.

"You are planning a burglary that will ruin a rival, when you learn that he’s earmarked the money for a new business venture. In a few weeks, his vaults will
contain even more cash, and his other assets will appreciate as well. Do you wait to rob him until after his investment pays out, earning you more and hurting him less, or do you ruin him immediately, earning yourself less but hurting him more?"

"Ruin him immediately."

"Your sworn enemy has hidden herself in a town under quarantine. Do you adopt the humiliating disguise of a leper for a chance to kill your foe, or do you insist that your enemy know he was slain by you?"

"Dress as a leper." Just seems more efficient..

"You have come to possess a rare and renowned drug. Do you keep it for yourself, or do you give it to a paramour to make her yield to your

This one stumped me for a few moments but ultimately I decided I'd give up a drug if it would help me reach my goals. "Give it to the paramour."

"You have conquered an enemy town and pillaged the treasury. Do you quietly slip the treasure back to your own vaults, or do you spend the treasure on a triumphal
celebration of your own glory?"

I waved a hand in a dismissive gesture. "My own vaults." I wasn't Giovanni. I didn't need to tell the world how great I am.

"You stand to learn embarrassing gossip about your rival, if you can endure the endless prattle of a courtier. Do you endure the chatter, or do you not bother?"

This was probably the easiest question of the entire test. "Endure the courtier."

"The opulent clothes you’ve ordered to impress the Emperor arrive, but they’re too small. You’re expected to meet the Emperor at a lavish soiree in three days. Do you starve yourself for three days to fit into the
clothes, or do you simply wear something you already owned?"

"Wear something I already own."

"A courtesan of notorious skill and beauty insists on an outrageous price for her services. Do you gladly pay, or do you haggle shamelessly?"

"Haggle." No reason to give up things I don't have to give up.

"You are at a wedding feast when you get word that a bankrupt debtor of yours is trying to flee town. Do you let him go to savor the celebration, or do you leave to thrash and imprison him?"

"Leave." Social events be damned, I'd get my pound of flesh.

"You behold a high priest in a disgraceful state of drunkenness. Do you believe you are better than him, or worse?"


"You have an opportunity to moonlight for extra money without your master’s knowledge, but to do so you must sneak out each night. Do you enrich yourself dishonestly, or do you not bother?"

I paused on this question. Money? Probably not. But I changed the question in my mind. If I knew I could enrich myself some other way.. more Coils, more information.. I gave Giuseppe a small smirk when I finally answered. "I'd sneak out."

He didn't so much as bat an eye lash. He just continued with the test.

"You have slain an enemy and plan to hang his severed head from your castle wall. His lovely widow comes to you and begs that her husband’s corpse be released
unmolested for a dignified burial. Desperate, she offers to give herself to you for one night in exchange. Do you agree to her proposal, or do you turn her down?"

I'd like to think I'd turn her down, yet give up the body without collecting on her offer. But that wasn't one of the options. Either way, her offer would hold no interest to me.. "Turn her down."

"You are invited to a bounteous feast, but it is to be held many miles away, and the road is arduous. Do you take the journey, or do you decline?"

Again with the fucking social functions.. I wondered who made this damn test. "Decline."

"You are defending a captured palace, and the gates have fallen. You must flee. Do you burn the palace behind you as you flee, or do you leave it intact so that you may retake it in the future?"

"Leave it intact." I'd get my shit back, by god.

"A tedious, gossipy old nurse is the only servant allowed access to a beautiful young maiden whom you’ve been eying. Do you feign friendship with the nurse to get access to the girl, or do you not bother to tolerate the tiresome hag?"

"Feign friendship."

He set down the last card. I watched in the darkness as he slid all piles but one to the side. Apparently I didn't have to choose this time. He picked it up and drew one card, setting it face down on the table. Then, he went back into the deck and removed another single card.

He picked up the card from the first set of questions and turned it over in front of me. It was the Hermit. He watched my face as he explained the meaning.

"Your nature disposes you to solitary efforts and contemplative pursuits. Considering every side of a problem is your great strength. Being unable to choose between options is your great weakness. You work best with time to consider, study and find a compromise between all factors. Anything that forces you to rush, guess or make do will drain you."

I considered that a moment. It seemed apt enough, though I liked to think I was better at rolling with the punches than the card suggested. It was something to think about..

He gave me a moment, then proceeded to turn over the card from the second set of questions. It was the King of Coins.

"Your faith in a better future ably equips you to build for it, and even when you fail you can start over with good cheer. With some luck and discernment, you can
accumulate great wealth and power, and that is when you must choose. Will you spend what you have in pursuit of that brighter future? Or will you decide the bright
future has arrived?"

I never really considered myself someone with vast amounts of 'good cheer', however, despite the overly sunny explanation of the card, it hit on a few good points. I don't think I'll even feel like my 'bright future' has ever fully arrived.

He put a finger on the last card, tapping it. "This.. is your fate card."

I perked a brow. "Alright.."

He flipped it over and laid it on top of the other two. I got the impression that I should consider it more important. It was the Five of Coins.

"The thoroughness with which you can grind down an enemy, whether the cause be personal, political or philosophical, is breathtaking in its awfulness. Never act rashly — such passion is not you. Instead, make your plan with care, plot each deed with foresight and step by step you can produce total ruin..." It may have been my imagination, but his voice seemed tinged with pride.

I was slightly taken aback by the last card. Not because of what it said, but because it sounded so much like Giuseppe. I wondered if he had gotten the same card when he took the test. I knew we had similar characteristics, but I was surprised at the extent of it... was I really that much like Giuseppe?

"Are you surprised about these facets of yourself?"

I nodded slowly. "A bit.. but I suppose not as surprised as I would have been before we killed Citysmith. I've been.. reevaluating myself a lot lately.."

He leaned forward. "I have a proposition for you."

My expression shifted from contemplative to curious. "Okay.."

"You have met the priest, yes?"
I nodded.
He tapped the stack of three cards that rested on the table between us. "Take these to him."
"Okay.." I waited for him to continue, to finish with the proposition, but he didn't. The shadows coalesced around him, and when they thinned, he was gone.

In his place was one last tarot. I stood and retrieved it. It was hand painted, as all the others had been, in his own style. I don't actually think it was a card that exists in the Tarot deck. The art depicted an oroborous identical to the one he had tattooed to my arm, but in blue.

I grabbed my weapons and my coat, gently placing the cards in one of the inner pockets, then headed upstairs.


"Hey, Boss.. you got a package."

I stopped and backpedaled back into the living room where Becca was watching TV, head in Nadi's lap as the mage read a book. I school my expression to only show the curiosity towards the package, and not the annoyance at the display of affection. "Where did it come from?" I was suspicious.

"The PO Box. I checked it while you were out. It's from New Orleans. I think its just papers. Its on the table in the kitchen."

"Who was it addressed to?" There were any number of people who could be sending me shit from New Orleans..

"Allison Damore.. that's you right? The Post office didn't screw it up?" She lifted her head to look at me and gauge my reaction, but I didn't give her a chance to make an assessment. I turned on my heel and walked into the kitchen.

"Boss?" She called after me, her voice slightly uncertain.

But I ignored her and grabbed the thick envelope. I tore it open and pulled out a relatively well packed file folder, sat, and began spreading its contents out onto the kitchen table. Becca wandered into the room and peeked over my shoulder. Her aura flickered with nervousness.

"Yes, it's mine." I said, answering her earlier question so she wouldn't think she'd fucked up. "Thanks." I added as my eyes were skimming the papers.

"What is it?" usually Becca didn't pry, but I think she was looking for something to say to play off why she'd walked into the room.

"Surveillance data from a PI that I hired to watch some people in New Orleans.." I read through the report quickly, then started flipping through the pictures, spreading them out on the table.

Becca turned to leave when one particular photo caught her eye. "Surveillance on strippers?" she asked incredulously.

I smirked faintly and set another photo of an attractive woman dancing next to the first. "I guess so. Though she wasn't a stripper when I started watching her."

"Who are they?" I glanced up at her as she leaned over my shoulder, examining the images. The nervous colors in her aura returned, uncertainty, and a very brief flash of what may have been jealousy. It made me wonder how on earth some Kindred could maintain more than one ghoul and not have them hate each other..

"These three are all related to a guy I killed back when I was first embraced. This," I tapped the picture of the stripper. "Is a girl he worked with."

Her aura flared with curiosity, but she didn't say anything. But I decided to answer anyway. "I lost control when I fed and killed him." My stomach started to knot, I paused and fought back the feeling until any emotion associated with the murder was gone. Old habits die hard I guess. Funny that I still had moments of regret about Vincent, yet not a moments pause about Ray, which had been intentional.
"Giuseppe knew it would happen, and sent me on a little mission to watch the ripple effect the death had."

Her aura flickered briefly with fear when I mentioned the murder. "Does that happen a lot..?"

"Only the once.." My voice was quiet. "I've been following it ever since. When I had to come up here, I hired a PI to watch for me and send me reports...now, I need to go over this shit.." I looked at her pointedly. I didn't mind her questions, but I was on a schedule, and needed to go through the stuff uninterrupted for a few minutes.

"Oh! Right. Sure thing." She headed back into the living room.

That was probably the most politely I've ever told someone to leave me alone before.. but then, Becca didn't annoy the shit out of me like the majority of my other 'housemates'. I also felt responsible for dragging her into this mess, and was still somewhat unsure of how she felt about that.. even if she had agreed to the terms.. it was probably a little silly to feel that way about an employee, but there it was, nonetheless, even if it was milder than it had been when we first arrived in Chicago.

I pushed the thought from my mind and focused on the task at hand. There was a good deal of information in front of me, and I wanted to make some sense of it before I left for the night.

It took a good hour to read over everything in the file, most of it seemed unimportant, but I didn't want to dismiss anything until I was sure.

The father was still alive, which I found a bit surprising. He'd been drinking more and more, his health rapidly declining.

Vince's brother had been sent to prison for a couple months for burglary.. he wasn't any less angry. He'd fallen in with a white supremacist group. They convinced him to shift his rage to the people who undoubtedly killed his brother.. the blacks. I wondered if this may cause more killings. I decided not to dwell on the thought. The deed was done and there wasn't much I could do about it.

The girl that had loved Vince from afar had quit the bar. If the conversations I'd overheard while in New Orleans were any indication, it was because it reminded her of Vincent. She now worked at a strip club (hence the photos) and had recently been approached about starring in a few adult films. Reading over the report, I was a little shocked. Each time I got more information about this trail, the more it surprised me how large an effect one death can have on people's lives. But then, that was the point.

There was a silver lining to all the bad news, though. Vincent's sister had reacted in a more positive way to the death. It had given her a renewed sense of purpose. She had quit her dead end job and pursued her dream of acting.. and had been rather successful. She had been cast in a few local plays, and was making a name for herself. The self confidence was spilling over everywhere else too. Apparently one of the director's had been making passes at her during production. She had consistently turned him down. Two nights ago there was an after party, and he had forced himself on her.

I coudln't help but smile when flipped the page and saw the photo of the guys knee. Compound fracture. Looked like she kicked him as hard as she fucking could right in the side of the knee. He was currently in the hospital, and judging by the extent of the injury, and my own personal experience with my own knee being fucked to high hell, he would be very lucky if he only had a minor limp for the rest of his life.

I shut the file and sat back in the chair, thoughtful. The option that currently presented itself could be sticky. I wondered, not for the first time, if I should interfere. I didn't honestly think I could help any of these people. I certainly didn't want to admit to the brother who had really killed Vincent. And I found that I actually had very little sympathy for them now. Each one of them had made their own decisions. I tipped the domino, but they had options, just like I had when Driscoll died. One action could have far reaching consequences, but didn't take away free will.

However.. prodding things a little might turn up something interesting. Change the experiment up and see what happens?

Damn, did I really just refer to it as an experiment?

I suppose its an apt enough description, and I had certainly began to develop a scientists detachment. But that also meant that changing the control group would render the experiment moot. I would no longer know what was a cause of the death, and what was my meddling.

I gathered up all the materials and returned them to the envelope. I took it all down stairs and put it behind lock and key in my bedroom. It was tempting to stir the waters, but ultimately unwise.

I did, however, send Giuseppe an update. I sat on the edge of my bed in the dark and sent him a series of texts. I was mildly annoyed that I couldn't just call him, but it was an unfortunate, and permanent, side effect of separating his Ka from the rest of him. And not the worst of them either.

I decided to even clue him in on what I'd been thinking. He probably wouldn't respond, but if he did, it might give me an idea on what steps to take next..


From: H
To: G

I considered interfering, to see what might happen. However, I think it would be better not to taint the process at this point. I want to see the effects of his death, not my meddling.


To my surprise, the phone buzzed with a response almost immediately.


From: Blocked
To: H

I'm proud of you. Enjoy your studies with Father Nicolai


From: H
To: G

Thanks, and I will.


I took out my phone and dialed the priest.

July 8, 2010

An Unexpected Outcome

(( Flashbacks continued...but not for long! ))

The tattoo didn't stay that night, or the next, or the next. Every night for two weeks, Giuseppe would put the same tattoo on my forearm- a small, stylized ouroborus. And every night upon waking, my body would reject it, and the tattoo would flake off as if applied with paint.

But that was the point of the lesson. Giuseppe told me that it was possibly to change the vampiric form. We did not have to be static. He would go on about the importance of change, and how we should never fear it, but embrace it. It took two weeks of this lesson before I finally got it. I listened and meditated on the ideas, along with the lessons I was learning from the Dragon's Tail, and tried my best to take them all to heart. I'd been Giuseppe's protege for a couple months now, and I realized that I didn't want to let him down.

It seemed silly that I'd feel that way about my murderer.. but there it was. So gradually that I hadn't noticed it, I'd started to care about the asshole. No one had ever spent so much time trying to help me improve myself. He'd successfully convinced me that he needed, or at least wanted, my help. It was becoming much easier to make excuses for his previous actions, God help me.

Then, one night.. it happened. As he was applying the ink, I felt myself slip away. It's not really an experience that I can describe, except that it felt like peeling away a cocoon. It felt like it lasted for only a few minutes, but when I came back to myself, I was sitting in the same position, but it was the next night, and my tattoo was still intact. Just to be sure, I tried to used the blood to heal it.. and grinned widely when nothing happened. I felt accomplished.. but the feeling didn't last long. I still had too much to learn..

The lessons became more grueling. The nights started with combat training. The second I woke up, Mona was there, beating the tar out of me with those goddamn knight sticks. The first night, I nearly lost it on her. The beast nearly took over on sheer reflex. I didn't understand what was going on. I woke up, she beat the shit out of me, and then left. I laid there, bones broken, a couple compound fractures, and knitted myself back together, anger, fear, and confusion festering in my gut. When I could stand again, I went to track her down. I found her in the kitchen, drinking coffee like nothing had happened.

"What the FUCK was that?!" I said as my jaw shifted back into place.
She just smirked into her coffee cup. "Combat training." Then she stood, set the cup in the sink, and walked out the door before I could respond.

That was how I woke up every night after that.

Then Giuseppe started teaching me more about the blood. I'd wake up to beatings, then have to sit in a room and meditate all night, without feeding. Night after night we did this, Giuseppe always right there with me, depriving ourselves of sustenance.. it become nearly impossible to maintain my focus. Sometimes I'd be allowed blood to heal myself up, but other times, I was forced to go through the lessons with bones I didn't have the ability to fix. Giuseppe would bring in just enough blood to keep us from losing our shit.. but never enough to fill me up.. it was a maddening and painful process. I lost track of how many nights we did this. It took all my concentration just to maintain my composure, I didn't have any energy to waste on counting nights.

Then the training shifted gears. He called off our fasting and began bringing samples of blood to taste. It got to a point where I could tell just by tasting the blood what animal it had come from.. and even down to the breed of the dog.

Conversations with Giuseppe changed too. Instead of answering questions, he began to ask them. Frustrating riddles that I'd have to spend all night puzzling over, then when I finally came up with an answer, my reward was another, more difficult question, usually without even a clue if I'd gotten the first one right. At one point, I spent two weeks doing nothing but trying to sink a nail into a board with one blow of the hammer. It was infuriating. Night after night.. wake up, try to defend myself against Mona, then nothing but hammer on a goddamn piece of wood. A week in, I hit my fingers for the 100th time that night, snapped and went ballistic. I vaguely recall tearing the board into tiny pieces while seeing a lot of red.

A new board was there the next evening. It took two full weeks before I could get that nail in in one swing of the hammer.

Oddly, during all of this, I never considered leaving. It was painful, frustrating, stressful, and rewardless.. at first. But I'd developed a sense of determination. I needed to prove to myself that I was worth all this effort. It was still hard to believe the Giuseppe needed me. The night I killed Vincent was the last time I thought about slipping away. That's not to say I didn't get livid with them both sometimes. The nature of the training made that unavoidable.

Then one night, after several months of the abuse, it all began to fall into place. Mona, once again, beat the shit out of me. Once that nightly ritual was finished and I used nearly all of my available vitae to heal myself, I went to go play more 20 questions with Giuseppe. I sat there, hungry, frustrated and disheartened and tried to focus on the barrage of questions. My head was starting to ache, and I'd had enough. He asked another question, and I nearly bit his head off with my answer. All my pent up vexation came spilling out in that one answer, which turned into a 10 minute screaming rant, and when I was finished, I just glared at him.

He met my gaze impassively. "Good." and he stood and walked out of the room.

I sat there, dumbfounded. Then that turned into intense satisfaction, and a renewed sense of accomplishment. I really was making progress.

The next night, I woke up, and before I had even realized what I was doing, sped the blood through my muscles. My hand was a blur as I caught Mona's knight stick as it went for my head. I held the stick and smirked at her. She gave an unsettling grin. "Good job. This means I get to go faster now."

And she proceeded to kick my ass.. again. But it was worth it this time. I left that room feeling bruised, broken, and satisfied.


It was one of our few moments of down time, roughly 8 months since Giuseppe had turned me. All three of us were in the living room. Giuseppe sat reading a book, Mona reading a police report, and I sat watching them both.

I broke the comfortable silence with a question. "Why stay a ghoul?"
Mona spoke without looking up. "Well, I have a day job." She held up the police report. "And we need someone who can get things done during the day without bursting into flames."

"Do you want to be a vampire?" These questions had been bothering me for awhile, and it wasn't until very recently that Mona seemed at all approachable. I'd actually been talking with her, sans knight sticks, pretty regularly now. She wasn't as aloof and pissy as she'd been at first. She seemed to start opening up more to me as I gradually ceased treating them both, especially Giuseppe, with such deep seated distrust and suspicion. Eventually, she'd even busted out old photo albums and showed me pictures from the 40s of her and Giuseppe. Her, dressed in nurse garb, him as a priest. It was odd seeing him with short hair, and her in a skirt. She'd given me a little bit of background on them both. I found all of it fascinating.

She set the police report on the coffee table. "Did you know that Dracula had three wives?"

I shook my head.

She continued. "The warrior, the scholar, and the beauty. For Vlad over here," she jerked a thumb at Giuseppe. He gave her a small, amused smile over the top of his book. "I'll keep doing what I'm doing.. but eventually I'd like to focus on more scholarly pursuits.."

"Fair enough." I lapsed into silence. Mona had surprised me, but that just proved that I didn't know her as well as I would've liked. She also made me wonder which bride I was going to be... which was weird to consider at all. I looked between the two of them and suddenly realized that for the first time in a long time, I felt like I was somewhere I was supposed to be. I suddenly knew, without a doubt, that I would fight to protect that. Giuseppe and Mona had, for all intents and purposes, become like family to me. A very weird, dysfunctional, and unusual family.. but one nonetheless. How I could find myself so attached to people who killed me, and nightly beat the shit out of me, I wasn't sure. Maybe it was because they were the only ones who ever gave me a second glance...

Well, the only ones in a long time. I pulled the dog tags out of my shirt. They hadn't gotten frosty since I'd died. Driscoll had tried. He'd worked his ass off to get me out of my shell and all I did was hate him for it. And now he wasn't around for me to apologize to.

I made a decision, right then. "I need to go to Texas." They both looked at me, then at the tags. Giuseppe nodded.

Mona put the report away. "I'll take you. We'll head out before sunrise tonight. Takes about 9 hours to get to Fort Sam.. The trunk is sunproofed."

I didn't ask how they knew were he was buried.


Mona waited with the car as I had hopped the fence, since visiting hours ended at sunset. She was giving me some privacy, and it was appreciated.

I took my time. I wandered the gravestones for awhile. I knew exactly where he was buried, but I didn't know exactly what to say. I didn't even know if he'd be around. I let the cool breeze, deep shadows, and uninhabitated surroundings reassure me as I wound my way slowly between the graves. Finally, I stood in front of his gravestone. Jordan Driscoll. The dog tags clicked together softly in the breeze as they dangled, the chain coiled around my fist. The place was virtually silent, and I was the only visitor at this late hour. That was just how I wanted it.

I took out a vial, and put a drop of liquid in one eye, and one on my tongue. My nervousness increased as the world shifted into black and white. I could now see that the graveyard was full of ghosts... but Driscoll wasn't there.

"Jordan?" Nothing. I sighed and rubbed the back of my neck self consciously. I knew he wasn't here, but I had to do it anyway. "I.. wanted to apologize. For taking the tags.. and for treating you like shit. You were.." I hesitated. I felt really stupid talking to thin air. "You were a good friend. I'm sorry."

I laid the dog tags on the headstone, letting the chain pool between the two pieces of metal. They winked dully in the moonlight. I wondered if he'd actually forgive me.. or if he even could. He had wanted to kill me.. but I was already dead. I didn't know if that's why he was gone, or not. Maybe he'd passed on. I knew jack shit about how ghosts worked. I stood there, awkwardly, for a few more minutes.. but nothing happened. At least, nothing with Driscoll. I did, however, feel a little better. Hopefully he could find some peace since I wasn't being such a bitch to him anymore.. and since I couldn't find him, that would have to be enough.

I walked away, leaving the tags on the headstone. I made a more direct route back to the car.

"Get your answers sweetheart?"

I came up short when I heard the voice off to my left as I approached the fence. My hand was on my gun and I'd forced vitae through my muscles on reflex. There was a man leaning against a tree wearing a cowboy hat obscuring his face. He looked familiar, but I was having a hard time placing him.

"It was an apology, actually.." I said. He tipped his hat upwards and looked at me with a friendly smile. It was Carter. He was head of the Ordo Dracul in New Orleans. I'd only met him once, when I'd been inducted a few months ago. He always seemed nice, and spoke with a rather charming Texas accent. I relaxed slightly and took my hand off the pistol.

"But you came out here lookin' for somethin' by makin' that apology.."

I gave him a faint smile. "I found it.. I think. But he wasn't here, so I'm not sure that he heard me.."

"Eh, the dead are an odd lot. There's no tellin'.."

"To what do I owe the pleasure..?" I asked. Him appearing in the graveyard of my dead friend, 9 hours away from where he should be, was disconcerting, despite his friendly disposition.

"Just thought I'd drop in and say hi. I like to check up on my people now and then."

I started to respond but he cut me off. "I also wanted to give ya a word of caution. Yer sire's got a lot of enemies. You'd best watch your back, your guilty by association, at least until you start doin' like him and pissin' people off yourself."

I smiled. "Yeah, I figured I'd need to be careful. Than.."

"I said watch your back." He cut me off again, and this time his voice held no trace of an accent, and his eyes no longer looked friendly or amused.

I froze, taken aback at the sudden shift. He stared at me, hard and unblinking, until I nodded, and he could read the comprehension on my face. He wasn't about to let me make light of the potential danger I was in, apparently.

Once I nodded, his face shifted back to a friendlier expression, and his voice affected the southern drawl once again. "Good. Give your sire my regards, and Mona over there." He pointed to the waiting vehicle, I glanced over, wondering if she could see us, but we were just out of her line of sight. When I turned back around, Carter was gone.

Well fuck.

I jogged back to the car.

"How did it go?" Mona asked when I hurried to the vehicle.

"Fine, I guess. He wasn't there. I talked anyway.. and Carter paid me a visit.."

"Hm.. what did he have to say?" She had automatically started scanning the area. The information didn't surprise her, but seemed to put her on edge a little.

"Told me to be careful about Giuseppe's enemies." I opened the passenger side door and got in the car. She did the same.

"It's a good piece of advice."

I nodded and she pulled out onto the street. "I know. But he's a lot better at going undetected than I am. What keeps the fuckers from coming after me, if only to get to him?" The idea was chilling. I didn't think I was a helpless duckling, but I had no illusions about how powerful some of the people were who would just love to get their hands on Giuseppe.

Mona just shrugged. "Simply put, us. Don't let it get to you. Giuseppe will make sure you've got the skills you need to take care of yourself, as long as you stay smart, and grow eyes in the back of your head."

I relaxed slightly in my seat. I was hoping she'd say something like that. It calmed the nerves, at least a little.

Mona and I headed back home. I told her stories about Driscoll, she shared a few anecdotes about her and Giuseppe from decades ago. It was a good ride.

It was a good ride home.

July 2, 2010

Following the Dragon's Tail

I had horrible dreams that first day. Nightmares that kept going through my head on repeat, visions of the temple, of killing those kids, over and over again. But I couldn't wake up from them. While that sun was out, I was at the mercy of the dreams, chained there, reliving the acts of violence over and over again.

On the plus side, there was no such thing as restless sleep for me anymore. I felt it, the moment the sun dipped under the horizon. My eyes popped open automatically, and I was fully awake as I felt the blood surge through my body. As I swung my legs off the side of the bed, I was silently grateful for the nightmares, in a way. It kept the hope that the whole thing hadn't been real out of my mind. I didn't have to deal with the crushing realization of my condition when I woke up. There was no illusions that it had all merely been a dream and I'd wake up alive and well in my own bed.

It was a weird sort of blessing.

I sat there for awhile, collecting my thoughts. I tried not to think about the dreams, about the dying kids.. instead, I tried to school my thoughts and direct them towards what I would ask Giuseppe tonight. I didn't feel the blood moving anymore, but I felt hungrier.

Giuseppe was waiting for me in the study. I settled slowly into one of the armchairs. I tried to get comfortable until I realized it wasn't an issue of posture.. I felt uncomfortable in my own body, not in the chair.

Giuseppe was reading, and didn't look up until I spoke. Then, he closed the book softly and set it on a small end table that hadn't been there the night before.

"When does it stop feeling so weird?"
He his mouth twisted into a very slight smile. "That depends entirely on what you consider 'weird'. It will take some time for you to become accustomed to it. How long, depends on you."

I nodded slowly. "Fair enough.. why did I nearly freak out and run out the door in the airport when another vampire came up to me? It didn't happen with you, or with Sundown." The word still felt strange to say.. vampire. But I had come to a decision when I woke up that night, before I'd left my room. I'd decided that hiding from the situation was pointless and pathetic. I may not like it, but it was what it was, and the faster I could get over it, the better. The self pity was gone, replaced by grim resolve.

"The predatory part of us.. the beast.. recognizes other vampires as potential threats. The reaction varies from a strong desire to run away, if the vampire is perceived as more powerful, or a desire to kill, if they are not. There are ways, however, to mask the... 'scent' of the beast from other vampires. This is why you did not 'freak out' when confronting Sundown and myself."

"Makes sense.. is there a way to keep this thing from taking me over again like it did on.." I paused, fighting back the memory, "...on the temple?"

"The beast is a part of all vampires, and it can be a struggle to retain control. The beast becomes more difficult to control in the throws of strong emotion, or hunger. If you allow yourself to go too long without feeding, the beast will force you to do so, and the end result usually tends to be rather..messy."

"The vampire asked me about clan.. and mentioned something called 'The Invictus'.."

Giuseppe nodded. "Your clan is the bloodline that you are embraced into. It will be the same as the bloodline of the one who turned you.. your 'sire'." He put a hand to his chest. "We are referred to as Mekhet..."

The night went on like that for hours. I grilled him endlessly on anything I could think of. What it meant to be Mekhet, about the beast.. and he answered some questions that I didn't think to ask. It was weird, Giuseppe being so forthcoming. Certainly there were some questions he didn't answer, whether because he couldn't, or thought I should find the answers myself, but mostly he gave me whatever information he could. And it was a lot to take in. Clans, covenants..he told me how to 'get along' in vampire society. There were rules, more rules that I thought vampires would have.. but a society needed rules to survive, even a society of monsters. He told me about the blood.. there was going to be a lot to learn about the blood.

He showed me how to use it to sharpen my reflection in the mirror. Looking at myself for the first time since the embrace was not a fun experience. I looked.. dead. My face was ashen, high cheek bones making my face look ghoulishly gaunt. No wonder people had been staring. I stood in front of that mirror for a long time, coming to grips with it. It wasn't until I had regained my composure that he taught me how to make myself look alive, using the blood, stressing the importance of hiding in plain sight.

He took me out, after that. We went to places with people. He showed me how to tell if someone was sick.

"Why does it matter if they're sick? How can a vampire get AIDS? We don't have normal physiology. Not that I'm eager to munch on the neck of a HIV patient.. but still.." Honestly, I wasn't eager to munch on any people..
"You are correct in one manner. We cannot contract the illnesses of those that we feed upon. However, we can act as carriers. Feed from a sick individual, you will pass on that illness to others that you feed upon."

My eyes widened a touch at that little tidbit. I realized I'd been unconsciously hugging myself. I forced my arms back to my sides. Talk of feeding was making me uncomfortable.

"You must never underestimate them, Harper."

I looked up sharply, somewhat confused. Giuseppe was watching me intensely.
"Why would I?"
"Perhaps not now, but in the future when you have learned what you are capable of, it will become very simple to view them as nothing more than prey. You would be wise to avoid that notion. They may only be mortal, but they can accomplish great things if given the right motivation. There have been many vampires that were felled because they did not think much of their 'prey'."

I turned away and watched the crowd again. They were nothing special from where I was standing.. but I had faced down vampires, werewolves, and other nightmares and had survived to tell the tale. It was true that human beings could accomplish impressive things if determined enough.

Giuseppe continued. "You are different from them now..."
I snorted. "That's nothing new." I interrupted.
Giuseppe gave me a scathing look. "You may not have felt very connected to your fellow man before, however, I assure you, this will prove to be much different. You no longer have the common trait of life with them. However, that does not mean you should seclude yourself from them. Those that do find their humanity slipping away at an alarming rate.."

I didn't really understand it at first, it took a few weeks before it started to sink in. I was different now. Emotions felt different.. desires, needs, everything.. felt unfamiliar. I slowly realized what Giuseppe had meant. I could feel the pull of the beast, fighting to do things that made me cringe, and the beast salivate.

So with Giuseppe's encouragement, I did things to keep some semblance of connection to the mortal world. Normal things. I went to the movies, to bars.. that early on, feeding wasn't involved. Giuseppe wouldn't let me feed on people yet.. which.. I was okay with. At least, part of me was. It was a lesson in self control to ignore the pull of hunger in crowded places.. but I managed.

Something else unexpected happened because of those trips. I realized I could really do without intimate social interactions. I had always been anti social.. but I'd never wanted to be. I'd always hated the people who could talk to anyone, be the life of the party.. but I'd been forced to do all those things in the weeks leading up to Mexico. I'd played the flirty club girl..among other roles.. and realized I found it.. distasteful. I much preferred to sit alone and people watch, or talk with someone with whom I had a genuine connection. The idea of being a social butterfly now seemed frivolous. None of those people actually cared.

So fuck em.

There were still moments when it was necessary. It was like a mask to slip on to meet a goal. One that felt oppressive and annoying, but still had its usefulness. Giuseppe encouraged other similar masks. He would talk to me often about the importance of change. Vampires were static creatures. Hell, I woke up with the same hair every night, regardless of what I'd done with it the night before. It was important not to become stuck in a routine. I didn't realize that this was more than just a philosophy until after I'd followed the Dragon's Tail.


A few weeks later, Giuseppe abruptly ended another philosophy lesson with a phrase that did not sound nearly as foreboding as it should have.

"We are going out." It was around 2:30am. It wasn't unusual, so I followed him through the streets without protest. I didn't bother asking where we were going, he wouldn't answer me anyway, and I'd know soon enough.

We stopped in a dark alleyway across the street from a bar. The place was already closed, the only movement inside were bartenders cleaning up the place.

"What exactly are we doing?" I muttered in a low voice.
"Hunting. Go."
I blinked at the abruptness, but gathered my wits pretty quickly. A lone bartender had exited the place and was walking towards the parking lot. He was, apparently, supposed to be my prey. I didn't feel very predatory at that moment. I knew that I shouldn't just go up and assault the guy.. I didn't want to blow my cover. So how did I go about getting him out of the open and none the wiser? Giuseppe hadn't given me any clues, but I was starting to get the idea that Giuseppe's idea of object lessons entailed pushing me in the river and seeing if I could figure out how to swim. I think he enjoyed watching me flounder at times.

I was terrified. I didn't want to feed from this guy. The concept of eating people still didn't sit well with me. But the other part of me had been yowling for it for weeks. It was getting more and more difficult to ignore it when I was out in public. So doing this, taking a little blood from this guy.. was definitely better than the alternative.. losing control and killing someone.

So, my wind working at light speed to figure out some ploy, I walked towards the guy. I kept to the shadows at first, until I figured out what angle I was going to play. I paused in an alcove, mussed my hair a bit, ditched the light jacket I'd brought for the sake of blending in, and made sure my clothes were slightly less than straight. Then I stumbled out of the alcove with a bewildered look on my face, my best impression of a confused, drunk chick.

"Hey.. hey have you seen my car?" I slurred just a bit, stopping right in his path.
The bartender stopped walking and gave me a half-assed smile and shook his head. "What type of car is it?"
"Blue Taurus..or a black Mazda.. I don't remember which one I drove.."
He glanced around the nearly empty parking lot and shrugged. "I don't think its here.. do you need me to call you a cab?" He seemed helpful, but annoyed. He was probably more than ready to be home.
I forced myself to giggle and tried not to let it make me sick to my stomach. "Well not here.. it was in the next lot over..can you help me?" I pointed through an alleyway to the neighboring street.

His smile started to crumble. "Look, I gotta get home.."
"Oh please? It'll only take a sec.. and I'm freezin' my tits off out here..see?" I reached for his face with one hand to illustrate, and he pulled back out of reflex. Which was fine, because it gave me an excuse to 'accidentally' lose my balance and stumble right into him.
I giggled again. "Oops.. sorry.."

He held me awkwardly and gently pushed me away from him. "Jesus, you are cold." He signed, looked around at the empty street then down the alleyway. "Alright, I'll help you look, but if its not in that other lot, I'm calling you a cab."

I gave him my best drunk smile and hung onto his arm as we turned down the alley. I started nuzzling his neck once we were about half way through the dank passage.

"Hey.. I've got a girlf.."
And then I bit him, and he stopped talking.

The first time I'd fed from a person, I hadn't been in control of myself. The beast had overwhelmed me and taken over my body and mind. The memories were still fragmented.

This was all me. The moment that hot blood hit my tongue, I knew why vampires hunted humans. The rush was a thousand times stronger than any morphine high I'd ever had.. and 10 times more potent than the animal blood I'd been subsisting on until this point. I drank long and deep. I could feel it coursing down my chin, and at some point I know I'd gotten him against the wall, my fingers in his hair pulling his head back to an awkward angle.

I nearly lost myself. In a panic, I realized I'd lost track of how much I'd taken. How many mouthfuls of blood equals a pint? Had I killed him? No, I could vaguely hear him making small noises, which meant he was still conscious. The rational part of me struggled to pull my body free of him. But the blood was heady and intoxicating. I didn't want to stop.. but somehow I managed to force my fingers to uncurl and begin to release him. I started to lift my face..

And couldn't. There was a hand on the back of my head, forcing me to keep my fangs in the guys neck. The thin reign of moderation that I'd managed to wrap around the beast suddenly snapped, unable to withstand the screaming desire for more blood. It drank, while the rational part of me struggled weakly to stop it. But the beast didn't stop until his heart stuttered once.. and then stopped. Then, sated, it stalked back into the shadows of my head. I tried to pull back again, and realized Giuseppe was no longer holding me in place.

I laid the bartender gently on the asphalt and turned slowly to glare balefully at Giuseppe. My face was covered in blood, my eyes were on fire, and if it had been anyone else standing there, it would've been scary as hell. Giuseppe wasn't impressed. My voice was rough and feral. My hands were shaking in rage. It was a fight to keep from screaming at him. Instead my voice was dangerously quiet. "Why did you make me kill him?"

He looked at me, unconcerned. "I did not. You are welcome to blame me, however. I provided you with a choice. Contrary to what you may believe, I only held you there for a moment."

My stomach twisted itself into knots. "You're going to tell me if I'd tried to stop a second time you wouldn't have held me there again?" My voice was bitter. The anger was rising.

"It is irrelevant, you did not try a second time." He said matter of factly.

I looked down at the body and felt something inside me break. I wanted to blame him. Giuseppe had made me kill him. He'd made me murder this random guy, who hadn't done me any fucking harm..

But he hadn't. He had facilitated.. but I had pulled the trigger. I wasn't able to control it. Even that rational part of me, the part that almost won out.. had been hoping it would lose.

But that didn't mean I wasn't pissed at Giuseppe, it just meant I was also pissed at myself. I clenched my teeth and glared daggers at him.

"It was necessary to illustrate a very important lesson. It is called Following the Dragon's Tail." He crouched down and pulled out the bartender's wallet. He tossed it to me. I swiped it angrily from the air. "Every death has effects.. consequences. You will follow the effects of this one."

I scowled at him. "And if I don't want to play this little game?"
His expression never changed. "I assure you, it is not a game. This is not an action to be taken lightly. It is a terrible thing.. that was completely necessary. If you do not chose to continue with the lesson, then we are finished, and this man's death will have served no purpose."

I felt anger and outrage bubble up, threatening my control. Once again, I was forced to shut down the majority of my emotions, to keep the beast from gaining footholds in my fury. I crushed the wallet in my fist and we stared at each other for several minutes. Giuseppe watched me like a statue, as though he could read my thoughts. I weighed my options.

It was possible, if I stayed, that Giuseppe may make me do more terrible things.. but it seemed unlikely. It was counter to everything he'd already taught.. but so was this, from what I could tell. But I couldn't just let the guy die for no reason. If I went through Giuseppe's little 'lesson,' there was nothing keeping me from leaving after that. Maybe I'd even decide Giuseppe had been right.. but I doubted it. I'd killed a man.. but if I went along with it, it would give me some time to do right by this guy's family, if he had one. And there was always the fact that it wasn't entirely Giuseppe's doing..

That was the thought that really made up my mind. I had murdered someone. I could blame him all night long, but I hadn't resisted. I had made the choice. I'd lost control...I couldn't just walk away and pretend it hadn't happened. Maybe I felt like following this trail would be my punishment.. or make the death mean something.. but either way, I couldn't pretend it wasn't my fault, and walk away..

I cursed long and colorfully and tore my eyes from Giuseppe. I knelt by the quickly cooling corpse and took all his valuables. He didn't have much besides the wallet and a cellphone, but I wanted it to look like a mugging, at least from the outside. He wore a simple ring that I hesitated to take.. but in the end also put that into my pocket. No normal mugger ever killed someone by exsanguination. I just hoped that no one would look that hard.

I flipped through his wallet. He had his tips for the night, a drivers license, TABC card, a photo of a woman, and a couple credit cards. I took the drivers license and put everything else back and put the wallet in my pocket, then I turned my back on Giuseppe and walked away, only pausing briefly to retrieve my discarded jacket.


His name was Vincent Hughes. I went to his apartment. I'm not sure why.. I think I wanted to be sure there was no one waiting for him to come home... thankfully, the place was dark. I heard no signs of life from within. I thought briefly about going inside, but there were bars on the windows, and I didn't have so much as a bobby pin on me to even attempt to pick a lock.

I sagged against the wall in the darkened hallway of the apartment building. I was not looking forward to this little assignment. Surprisingly, most of my anger had drained away, leaving me depressed and hollow. I liked to think that I had no illusions about the type of person Giuseppe was. He had never come off as a bastion of morality. He'd been willing to sacrifice all the others to get to me. It shouldn't surprise me that he'd kill someone if he thought it important enough..

What did surprise me, was that he didn't. I did. I'd never killed in anything but self defense before, at least not when I'd been in my right mind. Those kids on the temple.. I'd stopped having dreams about them. That guilt was quickly fading. They'd been dying long before I'd sunk my fang into them.. but this?

Giuseppe had told me it would be difficult to control myself. That's why I hadn't fed from any people yet. I knew it, intellectually. But now I understood on a whole new level. Now I got to see, first hand, the consequences of losing control. Maybe the lesson really had been necessary.. how easy would it be to give into the beast and take a life when you had no idea the ripples it caused.. the far reaching effects.. people could easily become nothing but cattle, if you refused to notice how one death could effect so many other things.

My thoughts were morbid and self loathing as I left the building. I used a payphone and called into the police department, anonymously, and reported the body. I was pretty sure I was only supposed to observe, but I didn't have much time tonight, and wanted to move it along. Besides, better the family know now, then to wait and wonder for hours or days.

I gave it some time, and since I was pretty familiar with the process, arrived at the morgue only a few minutes before the family. I sneaked into the morgue. I knew the place well enough, I'd transported my share of bodies there, back when I had a normal job. Two people showed up that night. An elderly man, and someone closer to Vincent's age, maybe a bit younger. There was enough of a family resemblance that it would be pretty safe to assume it was his brother. I wasn't stealthy enough to actually be in the room when the family identified the body, but I saw the faces as they left. I heard the wailing. Something inside me withered. The old man left looking wretched and haunted. The younger man had the look of someone holding up a dam that was about to burst.

I went back to the haven feeling like someone had put vice grips around my heart. I didn't speak to anyone, I just shut myself in my room and let the unseen sun steal me into oblivion.

((a reminder to anyone who may need it, Mona is a detective for the New Orleans Police Department, and, like Giuseppe, has been a ghoul for a very long time. She's now Giuseppe's ghoul..))

The next night I got straight to work. I asked Mona if she could run down the addresses for Vincent's family. To my surprise, she'd already done so, handing me a small piece of paper. I still wasn't sure Mona liked me being here too terribly much, but it was hard to tell. She didn't talk to me often, but then, I was usually busy learning shit from Giuseppe. I thanked her and left.

There were three addresses on the piece of paper. Two apartments, and one house in the suburbs. I headed there first, as it was the furthest away.. and was the father's house. I figured it was likely that everyone would congregate there.

And I was right. It was late enough in the evening that all the friends of the family had already left, or were in the process of doing so. Soon after I arrived, there were only four people left inside the house. The two from the morgue, a woman who shared the same family resemblance, and a girl who matched the photo that had been in Vincent's wallet.

I watched them grieve. It was probably one of the most unpleasant things I've ever had to do. I watched the sister get into a fight with the brother, a screaming match that devolved into her breaking down into tears and crying into his chest. The elderly man didn't speak much. He ignored offers of help. It was like his other kids weren't even there. It didn't take long before he disappeared into his bedroom for the night...but he didn't sleep. He just stared at the ceiling.

The woman on the couch, Vincent's girlfriend, just sat there, tears continually rolling down her pretty cheeks. She, more than the others, looked stricken. She was the only one who eventually left the house. The others stayed to find comfort in the presence of family.

So I followed her. I followed her for a month. I checked in with the other members of the family, but its difficult to keep tabs on so many people at one time. The longer I watched, the more detached I became, and the more I realized how much one death could effect the world around that person.

I watched as Vincent's girlfriend fell deeper and deeper into depression. She had been cheating on him. Her guilt fueled her grief, and wouldn't allow her to let it go. Eventually she swallowed two bottles of sleeping pills and washed them down with a fifth of vodka. When I got to her apartment that night, I found her dead, surrounded by photos and letters. It cut through my detachment enough to shake me. I decided that I'd had enough of this experiment for one night, and went home.


I closed the door softly and rested my forehead against it with a sigh.

"She killed herself today. The brother resents Vincent for dying and leaving him to take care of their dad, and the sister has actually started visiting her father more since the death." My voice was quiet.

"Is that all you have found?" Giuseppe asked from the shadows of the living room.

I shook my head and turned around to lean on the door. "After a month? Not by a long shot. This is going to be a long project isn't it?"
He nodded. "Some kindred follow the Dragon's Tail for generations."
I looked at the floor. "I can see why..." I had only just started to observe the ripples. I knew they would spread out and out and out. The prospect of documenting it all was daunting.

He turned and walked back towards the bedrooms. "We have work to do."
I blinked, confused. "What?"
He did not turn around. "Following the Dragon's Tail is an important exercise, however, there are other lessons that hold equal value. Your nights will encompass both." And he disappeared into the dark hallway.

I stood there a moment, considering my situation. I had been doing almost nothing but follow this trail for the past month, and something unexpected had happened.

I had become grateful for the experience.

Every night, I could feel the beast wrestling for control. And now I knew first hand what consequences letting it loose might bring. It really was a good lesson...one that would help me retain my humanity as I became more and more familiar with what it was to be a vampire.

As important as this lesson was, and would continue to be for the foreseeable future, the thought of other, less morbid pursuits put me in a slightly better mood. I pushed off the door and followed Giuseppe down the hall. That night, he gave me my first tattoo.