I was able to manage the walk back up the spiral stairs with little enough trouble, although the Abbot had to catch me a couple of times when the thundering pulse of the Old One's heart-beat made me stumble. The Abbot was opening the door of the surface antechamber when I finally got my thoughts into some kind of order.
"He's like nothing I've ever seen before. Nothing I imagined existed. I can't fight him and win. I can't even get near him without risking my sanity. I don't understand how I'm supposed to help you."
Ranulf shrugged. "In the vision we were granted, you weren't fighting him. You were simply making a choice. All that you'll require is free will, not any special knowledge or power. But even if you've never seen his like before, you know what he is. I saw it in your face as you leaned over him."
"Yes, I know what he is, Father. He's a creature who's managed to survive at least thirty thousand years. He's older than anything either of us can possibly imagine. What are even your eight centuries, in comparison to three hundred? And no one survives that long by accident, or chance. If he hasn't been killed by now, the chances are it's because he can't be killed!"
"Thirty thousand years?" Ranulf asked mildly, quite unperturbed by my frustrated outburst. "How fascinating. I had no idea that the world was even that old".
Oh. Of, course, he wouldn't have. As far as he knew, the complete history of the origins of the Earth was contained in the pages of the Bible - from which Bishop Ussher had calculated a creation date of Friday, October 12th, 4004 BC. I would have given a lot to spend some time talking to the Abbot, get a sense of what a genuine medieval world-view was really...
Another of the Old One's heartbeats thudded through my mind, delivering a brutal reminder to keep focused on the problem at hand. I used one hand to steady myself against the wall, and raised the other to stop Ranulf from coming to my assistance.
"I'm all right, I'm all right... could we leave now? I didn't seem to be affected by your Old One while I was outside this building."
The Abbot nodded. "No, this building has protections." He pulled the heavy outer door open and stood aside to let me pass. I tried not to appear too panicked as I went out, though to be honest it was all I could do not to break into a run. I was so frantic to get outside that it never even occurred to me to inquire as to the nature of those "protections."
Clear silver moonlight had never looked so good. I drew in several lungfuls of the cold, damp air, performing the calming deep breathing exercise, which Eirik taught me. My gaze drifted upwards and to the right, coming to rest on the roof of the Abbot's lodging. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, just enjoying the sight of the open sky.
Odd. There, beside the chimney... that looked like moonlight glinting on metal. There was a faint sense of movement, and for a second I half-glimpsed a human-seeming silhouette, crouched down on the roof. What on earth...
My subconscious mind was apparently a couple of seconds ahead of my conscious awareness. I didn't realize that I was going to yank the Abbot away from the doorway and down against the wall of the Old One's crypt until after I'd actually done it. Even so, I was a second or so too late. There was a faint sound, halfway between a whistle and a buzz, and a sharp splash of blood appeared on Ranulf's right sleeve, near his shoulder. I think the bullet would have hit his heart if I hadn't shoved him aside. I did my best to shield him with my own body as I more or less manhandled him into cover, but there wasn't any more gunfire. At a guess, the sniper couldn't get a clear shot. I scented the Abbot's spilled blood and felt my eyeteeth start to extend in instinctive reaction before I caught myself and retracted them in self-disgust. The Beast, weakened from the brutal tug and counter-tug, which it had just been subjected to, made only a token protest.
Ranulf was trembling slightly, and a thin sheen of sweat covered his face. His breath was coming in short gasps, and his expression was twisted in a rictus of pain, but his eyes were still clear and shrewd. "What just struck me?"
"A bullet." I cursed myself for a fool even as I said it. How would the Abbot of a medieval monastery know anything about firearms? "It's like... a very small arrowhead, propelled so fast it doesn't need an arrow. It's fired from a special kind of crossbow... we call it a rifle."
"And the archer..." Ranulf wheezed in agony for a second as he tried to move his arm, then continued. "The archer is on the roof of my house. Which means that we're safe from him as long as we stay here... but any brother who walks through the cloister or the churchyard will be exposed to his... rifle, you called it?"
I nodded grimly, mapping things out in my mind. The church lay directly behind us. Immediately to our right was the wall of the Old One's prison. Ahead and slightly to the right of us, across the churchyard, lay the Abbot's lodging, blocked from our sight now by the prison walls. Further to the right of the lodging lay the cloister leading back into the church?
To reach the Abbot's house would mean a long dash across the churchyard, exposed to the sniper all the while. But there weren't many alternatives that I could see. I couldn't stay here indefinitely. The sun would come up in a few hours, for one thing; and for another, Ranulf clearly needed medical attention, which he wasn't going to get crouched down here. Plus, as he'd pointed out, any hapless monk who walked into the churchyard would be a sitting duck.
"Stay here, Father. I'm going to try to get to the... archer." The word "sniper" didn't translate very well into the medieval vulgate Latin which we we'd been using to communicate.
Abbot Ranulf nodded. "Good luck. I'll give you all the help I can."
"No! Stay here. I'm less vulnerable to harm than you are. Let me deal with this."
The Abbot gave me a grim smile through his mask of pain. "I wasn't planning... to move. I can... help in... other ways." I didn't have time to question that. Presumably he was thinking of whatever powers he'd been granted during his crusade in Livonia. I could only hope they'd be enough to keep us both alive.
My wolf shape would be best for this, I decided. Faster, keener senses, and lower to the ground, so harder to hit. I tried to draw on the power of the vitae, willing my body to change. Nothing happened.
With a low his of frustration, I tried again. Still nothing. A quick experiment confirmed that my perfect night-vision was likewise out of reach.
I could feel the power of the vitae, burning inside me, but I couldn't use it. Chalk up another point for the monastery's supernatural defenses. Too bad they might help to get its leader killed from shock and blood loss.
Nothing for it but to do this the hard way. I took a deep breath - old habits die hard, even after several years as one of the undead - and dashed out of cover, trying to keep my head down, ducking and weaving around as well as I could. The wind started to pick up around me, howling mournfully, and I felt a faint, icy breeze caress the back of my neck
James Bond and Indiana Jones, I've noticed, have a knack of dancing through a hail of gunfire as though it were a field of tulips. I often wonder where the evil masterminds they face get the hired help. I can just imagine the Want Ad - "Megalomaniac criminal mastermind with ambitious plans for global domination seeks security personnel. The ideal candidate will have a low IQ, a minimal attention span, and a complete inability to hit the broad side of a barn even when standing in the hayloft. Impaired vision and hearing would be an advantage, although successful candidates will be supplied with blindfolds and earmuffs if required."
The sniper, unhappily for me, was not that kind or marksman. By the time I got to the door of the Abbot's lodging I'd been shot three times - once just below the ribcage, once in my left calf, and once in my right thigh. I suspect the two hits in my legs had been intended to blow out my kneecaps, so maybe my amateurish attempts to dodge about did achieve something. A mortal would have been incapacitated with shock and agony, I'm sure. Being a vampire does have a plus side. I was hurting like hell, but I was still able to function. I still couldn't draw on the power of my vitae, not even to do something as basic as healing, and I started to feel pretty grim at the prospect of having to face the gunman in my injured state. With any luck, my vampiric nature would still give me an edge, even with most of my powers denied to me, but still... well, no help for it.
I ducked through the door of the Abbot's house as fast as I could. The place was spartan, simple wooden furniture, chairs and tables... a huge number of books by the standards of the middle ages, but I supposed that the monks here had had all the time they needed to write and illuminate a remarkable library. I wasn't paying much attention, though. My entire focus was on getting up to the roof and somehow taking out the sniper. I half-dashed, half-hobbled across to the inner door, up the stairs, through the sleeping chamber, and up the ladder leading to the roof trapdoor. The roof's angle of incline wasn't steep, and I knew I'd have no trouble keeping my footing once I reached it...
But I was afraid of having my head blown off as soon as I popped it out. I shoved the trapdoor aside with great force and threw myself out with as much of a leap as my weakened legs could manage. My momentum nearly sent me rolling right off the roof's edge, and I was cursing inwardly as I caught myself, expecting any moment to feel a fusillade of gunfire ripping through me.
I didn't. As I jerked my head up, I saw a figure clinging desperately to the narrow chimney with both hands, seemingly fighting off a ferocious gale which threatened to pitch him clear off the roof. As I scrambled to my feet to face him, the moon briefly framed him, and I felt a shock of familiarity. I recognized, not the sniper himself, but the sniper's shape. This was the figure whom Kathryn, Nick and I had watched fade away into nothingness, that first night at the Priory.
He wasn't as burly as I'd thought from that brief, phantom glimpse of him. Much of his apparent bulk came from the thick, heavy greatcoat he was wearing - it looked distinctly military in style and cut, although I couldn't identify the nation, much less the army, that it belonged to. "Military in style and cut" would have been a good way to describe his white-blonde hair, as well, although it was being whipped into a chaotic frenzy by the wind. Beneath the greatcoat, now flapping wildly open, he wore a high-collared black shirt and trousers which somehow retained their immaculate crease even though they were plastered flat against his legs.
His face, even contorted with the strain of fighting the wind, was handsome in a cold, Teutonic sort of way, with high cheekbones and a square jaw. He was a perfect poster boy for the pureblooded Aryan race, no doubt about it. I couldn't see his eyes from my crouched position, but I suspected they'd be ice blue. He looked the type to have ice-blue eyes.
He shifted position slightly, trying to get a firmer grip on the chimney, and I saw the one flaw in his image. His bare feet were narrower and slightly longer than they should have been, covered with hair, and tipped with curving claws instead of nails at the toes. *Well, well. So this was the Gangrel, which the fox had seen lurking around the Priory that night those two Californian tourists had gotten themselves lost. At least, it'd be a very odd coincidence if it wasn't.*
Moonlight glinted off metal and I saw a rifle of some kind, lying at the base of the chimney. Poster Boy must have dropped it so he'd have both hands free to hold on. Lucky for me or he'd have blown me apart when I jumped out of the trapdoor. I edged forward, keeping low, trying to get at the rifle without being hit by the gale.
Poster Boy's misshapen feet left the roof and for a moment he hung there almost horizontally. His arms gripping the chimney his body flapping behind him like one of those sock things they use in wind tunnels. Then he rallied, somehow contorting his body so as to hook one leg precariously around the chimney as well. His fingers twitched in a reflexive gesture, which I recognized from my own experience. He was trying to grow claws to get a firmer grip, but he wasn't having any more luck with his shapeshifting powers than I'd had a minute or so earlier. His hands remained hands, unchanged.
I was braced for the worst, but as I inched forward, all I could feel was a slight, chill breeze against the back of my neck. That ghostly wind didn't touch me, didn't seem to affect me in any way. Very cautiously, I straightened up to my full height. Still nothing. Poster Boy looked like he was fighting off a hurricane and there I stood, totally unaffected. *Spooky.*
Quickly, I grabbed the rifle and leveled it at the sniper. My knowledge of guns is limited to what end the bullets come out of and the fact that they go bang when you pull the trigger, but I felt a little more confident with the gun in my hands. Although, from the half-sneer which Poster Boy managed to throw in my direction, I obviously looked as amateurish as I felt.
The metal of the gun felt oddly chill against my hands, and I glanced down in surprise to see it covered with a thin layer of frost. A rather thicker sheen of ice was starting to encrust Poster Boy's exposed skin, his clothing, even the parts of the chimney, which he was gripping. This phantom storm had to be Abbot Ranulf's doing. I looked quickly down into the churchyard to check on him, just in time to see two mismatched figures leave the cloister and hurry towards the entrance of the Old One's crypt. The one in the lead, tall and thin, ate up the distance with ground-devouring strides of his long legs, forcing his smaller, plumper companion to scurry frantically to keep up. I imagined Laurel and Hardy dressed up in monks' robes, but the situation was too grim to allow me much amusement.
The sniper was trying to yell at me, but the gale - or whatever the force was that he was fighting - was carrying his words away. It was a weird effect, like watching someone on TV with the mute button pressed. The ice around the chimney had grown thicker and smoother, and his grip began to slip.
"Who are you? What are you doing here? Why did you try to shoot me?" I figured it wouldn't hurt to ask, and I really wanted the answers. But even if he'd felt inclined to reply, he wasn't able to stick around and chat. His arms and curled-up leg slid away from the now-slick surface of the chimney, and he hurtled backwards into empty space, his face screwed up in a ferocious snarl of frustration.
The Abbot's lodging was built up against the outer wall of the monastery, and Poster Boy must have been thrown back a good twenty or thirty feet. I ran the few short steps to the edge of the roof and watched him fall back to earth, well clear of the Abbey walls. The supernatural wind must have died abruptly, because I caught the trailing end of his scream as he was flung through the air. He didn't sound scared, though. Outraged would be more like it.
He landed like a pro. I had a friend at Cambridge who was into parachute jumping and I watched the hitting-the-ground part of his training sessions a few times. Poster Boy moved the same way, doing some sort of tuck-and roll thing which seemed to absorb his momentum and bring him to his feet a couple of yards from the point where he'd landed. He looked up at me for a second; standing on the roof armed with his rifle, then turned and ran off into the darkness at impressive speed.
I stood for a second, weighing up my options. On the one hand, I was injured, knew bugger-all about fighting beyond the occasional bar brawl and Poster Boy looked and moved like some kind of trained military man. Trying to hunt him in the dark was a stupid thing to do. On the other hand, I was now armed, and he wasn't. He was probably really pissed at me for spoiling his assassination attempt, and I'd rather deal with any confrontation on the topic whilst I was the one packing the heat...
I blinked. *Packing the heat? Nick's bloody gangster movies were getting to me.*
... Particularly since he'd already shown a preference for shooting from cover. Plus, he could try to double back and get into the monastery again. The monks had some pretty formidable supernatural powers, but they weren't invulnerable. One look at the blood on Ranulf's robe could tell you that. Poster Boy could do a lot of damage before they drove him off, if he got in. And Laurel and Hardy were there to help the Abbot with his injuries. He didn't need my assistance.
As I jumped off the edge of the roof, I wondered briefly what Geronimo would have said if he'd known that he'd become the patron saint of people about to fall from a great height. I didn't land anything like as well as Poster Boy - I fell like a carelessly flung sack of potatoes, to be honest - and the impact provoked a fresh jolt of agony from my injured legs. I almost lost my grip on the rifle as I staggered back against the wall. The Beast gave a snarl, wanting to lash out at someone and frustrated by the lack of targets.
"There is an art, or rather a knack, to flying," I quoted through gritted teeth, as I forced it into submission. "The knack lies in being able to throw yourself at the ground and miss." Too bad I didn't seem to have the knack.
I headed in the direction, which the other Gangrel had taken once the worst of the pain subsided. I was keyed-up and on edge, swinging the rifle wildly around at every new sound, my eyes straining to pick out my quarry in the darkness. I hadn't realized before now how dependent I was on my perfect night-vision, the first supernatural power I'd ever developed. The moon was bright enough to let me see where I was going, but by my normal standards I was practically blind.
It didn't take me long to work out that I was on a narrow path between strips of cultivated fields. The shapes were vague in the low light, but I was familiar enough with medieval agriculture than my brain filled in the details automatically. This must be part of the farmland, which kept the abbey supplied with food. I could see a few low buildings dotted here and there, but none showed lights or any sign of activity, so I concluded that they must be barns or storerooms of some kind. They'd be perfect hiding-places, but I didn't see how Poster Boy could have gotten to them without leaving tracks in the muddy fields, and there was no sign of that.
Slowed by my injuries, I must have walked for about ten or fifteen minutes before the fields gave way to moor land, still with no sign of the sniper. I was wondering whether he'd somehow gotten past me and doubled back, when a wall of mist loomed up in front of me. I could tell at once that it wasn't natural. The great expanse spread in front and above me for as far as my eye could see, churning and roiling, but never changing its position. As patches of cloud scudded in front of the moon, I saw that it seemed to be illuminated faintly from within.
It didn't take a genius to figure out that this must be the boundary of the pocket dimension, which the Abbot and his compatriots had created for themselves, but the sheer immensity of the thing brought home to me just how powerful they must be. Assuming it was dome or sphere-shaped, the fog bank must have enclosed an area a good three or four miles in diameter. Perhaps this was the way that Poster Boy had gotten into the Priory's exclusive little neighborhood. In which case... might it also be a way out?
I extended the tip of my finger gingerly into the fog, but it simply felt like fog - damp and cold. Gradually, I inched inside, but the only ill effect I suffered once I was inside was the inability to see my own hand in front of my face. I took a cautious step, then another, testing the ground in front of me with each pace. It felt no different than it had before. Rough moorland. Another step. One more. Still no problem.
After a few minutes, caution was rapidly being replaced by boredom. I was hoping for something - anything - to happen, when the mists cleared slightly, and I saw Poster Boy. Be careful what you wish for...
He was sitting on a rock in a small clear space, maybe thirty feet across, surrounded on all sides by a wall of white. The strange inner glow of the fog had been intensifying as I got deeper into it, I realized, and I could see him quite clearly. He'd been poring over some kind of map or chart as I'd approached, but now his head jerked around, his eyes narrowing as he saw me. Oh, not ice blue eyes at all. Green, practically the same color as my own. Never mind. I never much liked stereotypes.
"I believe that was mine." His voice was mild, even slightly amused, as he gestured at the rifle. I brought it up clumsily, trying to aim between his eyes.
"You've never handled a gun before, have you? Did you know you had the safety catch on?"
I kept my gaze level and the gun as level as I could. "I don't even know if this thing has a safety catch, much less how to find it. But if it really was on, I don't think you'd warn me. I think you'd just take it away from me. So if you try to move towards me, I think I'll just pull the trigger and take my chances on looking like an idiot, thanks."
He smiled a little and nodded. "An amateur, but not stupid." He rose to his feet, and I back-pedaled a couple of paces, doing my best to keep the rifle aimed. I don't think he was afraid, but he was wary. Getting shot was a more serious threat, here, where we were both denied the miraculous healing abilities conferred by the Blood. I could personally attest to that. Keeping his movements slow, he reached down to the rock and started to gather up the chart he'd been studying. I would have liked to know what it was, but I didn't dare take my eyes off him.
"I try not to be. What happens now?"
"You're asking me? You're the one with the gun."
"Much good that'll do me if we're both still here when the sun comes up."
The smile broadened. "As I said, not stupid. Well, then, since I have no more desire to face the sun than you, we both have a strong incentive to compromise." His accent was utterly neutral. A touch of European and a touch of American nothing that I could put my finger on.
"You didn't seem so keen on compromise earlier."
"The Abbot, you mean? Would that compromise were possible. You know the history of our kind; you know what his kind did to us once, and would do again if they could. And the Inquisitors of five centuries ago were merely mortals. Abbot Ranulf and his followers are something far greater, far more powerful. They created all this through the pure force of their will," the other vampire's gesture swept around the fog bank enclosing us. "Imagine if the next campaign of extermination were led by such as he. We would be defenseless. Even now, as he lies wounded, he has strength enough to deny us our own powers. Why do you serve him, against your own kind."
"I don't serve him. I only just met him. I only came here trying to find what happened to those tourists." I wasn't sure why I felt compelled to defend myself against a would-be murderer of priests. Maybe the throbbing pain of my wounds was affecting my judgment. Or maybe he was using some kind of subtle influence on my mind. "And he's not leading any campaigns. He's spent eight hundred years away from the world, protecting everyone in it - including us - from a far worse threat."
The moment the words were out of my mouth, I'd have given my right arm to call them back. His eyes gleamed triumphantly. "So, it's true. It's really here. The Old One."
Fool, fool, fool, fool, fool, fool...
"What if it is? What good does it do you to know that?" Cursing myself for my slip, I needed to know what Poster Boy would do with the information I'd so stupidly given him. I couldn't believe he'd be insane enough to want that monster free.
"It must be destroyed".
Thank God for small mercies.
"You can't. The monks already tried. Even hacking off its head won't stop it."
"I know. But we know another way to destroy it." I opened my mouth to ask how, but he kept talking and fast. "Listen to me. The binding, which the monks laid upon it is growing weaker. It's waking up. In a few years, they will no longer be able to hold it. If the enemy planes hadn't destroyed the real world Priory fifty years ago, it would already have escaped... they staved off the immediate threat, but they were just a little too late. The long-term damage had been done. The gradual decay of the magic, which imprisons it is irreversible. It has to die... and that means the monks have to die. If we kill it without first killing them, they will be freed from any need to remain here in isolation. There will be nothing to stop them from returning to the real world and igniting a new war against us all."
He'd taken a step or two back spreading his arms out in appeal. I thought it was just for dramatic effect. He was right, I was an amateur. I never even registered that the move was taking him closer to the wall of mist.
"No. If you know a way to destroy it, tell me. The monks aren't fanatics. They just want to live here in peace, not start any wars. They let me survive when they could have finished me. I won't help you murder them out of five-hundred-year-old paranoia."
He shook his head resignedly. "You sound like what I remember of myself at your age - God knows why I should blame you for that. I'm afraid experience will have to be your teacher, as it was mine. You may not believe this, but I truly hope you survive the learning process. I see potential in you."
"You want me to learn, fine. Teach me something useful. How did you know about this place? How did you know about the Old One? And what did you mean about the German bombers stopping it from escaping?" He froze. Maybe he was just a damn' good actor, but I think he was genuinely surprised.
"German bombers? Boy, I am German. I was an Abwehr agent. The Priory wasn't destroyed by our Air Force. It was destroyed by yours."
He was fast, I have to give him that. It took him only an instant to register my shock, realize I was distracted and throw himself forward into the fog. He was lost to sight before I could pull the trigger. I started after him at a dead run, stumbled back with a yelp as the move sent a fresh wave of pain through my legs, and picked up the pursuit again at a more moderate pace.
The cold, damp whiteness filled my senses once more as I plunged forward. Strain as I might, I couldn't pick up a single trace of my quarry, and after moving at a stumbling, pain-filled trot for several minutes, I lost pretty much all sense of direction, too. I think I was still moving ahead in a more-or-less straight line, but I wasn't certain even of that.
I was considering trying to turn around and retrace my path to the monastery when the beam of light pierced the fog. I jumped back, thinking it might be some kind of attack, but it swept right across me without doing any harm. No, not across me, through me... as I craned my neck around to follow its path, I saw that it was continuing through my body as though I wasn't there.
I was spooked, but it was something to aim for in this chill white nothing. I shifted direction slightly, heading to where the beam had seemed to originate, and immediately started to feel resistance. It was barely noticeable at first, but before too long it was like wading through water, then treacle, then heavy muds. It was becoming an effort just to put one foot in front of the other, but I pushed on, straining against the unseen force which was driving me back...a force that suddenly vanished, heaving me to fall forward onto my face. The rifle, still tightly clutched in both hands, banged painfully against my ribcage as I hit the ground. Falling over like this was a habit I needed to break myself of and fast. A blinding glare dazzled me, and I rolled over awkwardly, gasping at yet another jolt of pain from my wounds, trying to bring the rifle up.
An unseen force snatched the weapon unceremoniously from my grasp. Long, elegant fingers caught it in mid-air, as two familiar voices called out to me.
"Daim! How the bloody fuck did you do that! Where in sodding hell have you been?" Nick demanded, jerking the beam of his torch away from my eyes.
"Nice to see you again, by the way," added Kathryn, examining the rifle with interest.
The ceramic amphora held about three pints of blood. I drank gratefully, feeling the power of my own, vampiric vitae coursing through me. One of Kathryn's bag of tricks - her claim to fame in Tremere circles, she once told me - is a spell which takes animal or human vitae, mixes it with a sample of blood from a single vampire. Then convert the human or animal blood into the blood of the vampire that gave the sample. She keeps about ten pints worth of synthesized blood for each of us in her haven, stored in the ensorcelled amphorae, which keeps it fresh and warm. Just in case of emergencies.
At last, I felt my wounds close. I stretched to my full height - such as it was - luxuriating in the absence of pain.
"You were missing five nights," Nick was telling me, a little more calmly. "When you didn't show up back in York, we came here looking for you. Kate said that there were traces of your aura leading towards the Priory, then they just blanked out, pzzzt! We've been searching here every night since then, until we saw you appear out of nowhere like that."
"I said, 'terminated inexplicably', actually, not pzzzzt." Kathryn was stroking the ground at the point where I'd allegedly "appeared out of nowhere." She straightened up with an annoyed frown, and started tracing sigils in the air. She stopped after a couple of moments, her scowl deepening.
"I know. I was trying to put what you said into English."
"Your attempt was unsuccessful. Daim, what happened?"
"Let's get into the van and head back. If we stay here while I answer that, we'll not have time to get back before dawn."
Kathryn hesitated for a second, then shrugged. "I can't see why not. However you got back, there's no magical residue I can sense, no trail I can follow." That explained the scowl. We headed back towards the van, and I started talking.
I've always liked Kathryn's haven. It's set in a little back street in York, and from the outside it looks like a tiny, narrow old house, crammed between two much larger residences. What you can't see from the outside is that it has a cellar about four times the size of the house proper, running under all the surrounding buildings.
The central area is a sort of underground atrium, a huge circular chamber two stories high, lined with bookshelves all along the wall. The upper level is just a circular walkway running around the shelves, looking down into the conversation area below. The ceiling is a dome painted with an elaborate astrological zodiac, though I'm sure it's only significance is artistic, not magical. Kathryn's not the type to put her secrets on open display. The décor is mostly classic Victorian, all polished mahogany and burgundy velvet drapes, but there are plenty of objects d'art from the Indian subcontinent, as well. Including magnificent rugs, statues of many-armed gods, paintings of exotic temples and soaring mountains. Kathryn was Embraced in the late nineteenth century, but England, her father's homeland, is only a part of her heritage. Her mother's Indian blood shows in her coffee-colored skin, her great dark eyes, and her regal beauty. She's like a Rani, an Indian princess - aristocratic, serene and beautiful.
And with a sense of irony, which can flay the skin off a man's back, but then, nobody's perfect.
Nick and I were sprawled out on an enormous sofa upholstered in dark red leather, slumped down pretty close to horizontal. Nick had kicked off his heavy boots and was wriggling his toes lazily in his thick woolen socks. That's one plus of being a vampire, I supposed - our feet don't sweat, so removing our shoes in company isn't as antisocial act as it would be for a kine. Kathryn sat bolt upright on the armchair facing us. It says something for her poise and sense of style that she was looking more relaxed and comfortable than we were.
"Yes, I've heard mention of parallel dimensions like the one you've just experienced," she was saying patiently, "but only in very old records - not even magical references, just diaries and recorded anecdotes. I've never encountered anything remotely like this in person."
"A Neanderthal." Nick didn't sound disbelieving, merely thoughtful. "It's not as insane as it sounds - and he may not be as old as you think, either, Daim. There was a guy called..." He frowned. "Stolyhwo, I think, Polish. Published some claim about having found a tomb with a Neanderthal in a suit of chain-mail armor. There have been rumors for years about creatures called Almasti, all the way from the Caucasus to Inner Mongolia, who could be surviving Neanderthals. There was some encounter with one during the first world war, I think - some Russian called Stephanovitch Topilsky supposedly shot it. They may not all have died out in the last Ice Age."
He'd know, of course. If you want to know about weird and freaky creatures, anything from the Loch Ness Monster to Bigfoot, Nick's your man. Vampire. Whatever. He says, a supernatural monster killed him once and he's damned if he'll let it happen again.
"Okay, maybe. But however old it is, it's powerful like nothing I ever imagined. The effect it had on me when it was sleeping, I don't even
want to think about what it could do to me if it were awake." I shuddered.
Kathryn pursed her lips. "It seems we have three problems. The Neanderthal, if that is indeed what it is, the monks - who despite Daim's touching faith in their benevolence, may well be the threat which our German spy claimed they were - and the said German spy and his associates."
I looked at her. "He never said he was a spy."
"Yes, he did. You simply didn't understand him. You said he told you he was an agent of the Abwehr. That was the Third Reich's intelligence network."
I frowned. "I thought that was the Gestapo."
"Not quite. The Gestapo was a secret police force, largely concerned with the maintenance of internal order, both in Germany and the conquered territories. The Abwehr was a foreign military intelligence network. It was far less a creature of the Nazi party than the Gestapo, more a part of the old guard. In fact, Admiral Canaris, the man in charge, took part in several plots to kill Hitler, and was himself executed by his own side in 1945."
"That fits with the rifle. World War Two vintage. Beautiful piece of work," Nick put in. He caught my expression and shrugged. "Well, it is. Not my fault if you don't like guns." I gave him the shrug right back, and returned my gaze to Kathryn.
Kathryn changes when she's in her haven. I don't know if she's consciously aware of it. When she's outside, she adopts the accent and mannerisms of the late-teenage girl, which she appears to be peppering her speech with modern slang, the occasional pop-culture reference and walking in a careless slouch with her hands stuffed into the pockets of her jeans. Here in her haven, it's different. Her diction becomes clipped and clear, with her manner formal and her movements precise. She can act as if she is a part of the contemporary youth culture, but it is just an act. Away from prying eyes, she relaxes and becomes the upper class Victorian lady, which she really is.
Her knowing about the Abwehr came as no surprise. From her youth, she'd been immersed in the diplomatic and military cat-and-mouse between Britain and Russia over the fate of India. As a Kindred, Kathryn Malcolm, child of the Great Game, continued to take a keen interest in espionage and subversion.
I wondered if that was why the Tremere had recruited her. I knew better than to ask.
"Maybe four problems. If Herr Abwehr was telling the truth about our own side bombing the Priory, someone in the British government at the time must have known about the place. It would explain why the Home Guard unit's report got classified - I wondered about that. Is it possible that someone in the government - or the intelligence services - still does know about the Priory, fifty years on?"
"Someone in the British government..." Kathryn's eyes got a faraway look.
We waited a few seconds. Nick lost his patience a fraction before I did. "Share."
She came out of her reverie. "During the war, a small cadre of intelligence officers realized that Himmler's occult researches weren't all useless bunkum. They formed themselves into a loose network to fight the threat.
"They had no official status, no formal budget. The group - they called themselves the Round Table, originality wasn't exactly their strong-point - were all members of other services, mostly in the intelligence community, but a few army and naval officers as well. Most were simply dedicated mortals, but one or two of them had a little natural 'talent,' nothing very spectacular. They were badly organized and like most of the British intelligence services in those years, something of a boys club in which aristocratic connections counted for more than real ability. But they scored several fairly important successes behind the scenes."
Nick raised his eyebrows. "Sound like you're speaking from personal experience."
Her eyes went distant again. "One of them was my great-grandson."
That revelation shocked us both into a moment of silence. She noticed our expressions and grinned wickedly. "You find it hard to believe that I would have indulged in anything as vulgar as..." her voice dropped to a theatrical stage whisper "...sex?"
Nick and I exchanged glances and shared another moment of silence. Kathryn threw back her head and let off a peal of laughter. I forced down the overwhelming sense of conceptual dissonance - not without effort - and asked: "You think this 'Round Table' could have ordered the bombing?"
"If they thought that something was happening at the Priory which would free this 'Old One' of yours, yes, it's possible. I never heard any mention of such a thing. But I can think of no other organization operating at that time that would or could have taken such direct measures against a supernatural threat. At least, no mortal organization, and our fellow supernatural have their own resources. They don't need to rely on bomber planes."
"Is there anyone still alive that we could ask? Your grandson?"
"He died of old age several years ago. But I doubt he would have known anything, in any case. As to the others... after the war, the Round Table disbanded. Most of its members saw little point in continuing their work once Himmler's organization had been smashed. Several of them had dabbled in Communism in their University days - a few of them defected to the Soviet Union. One of their best operatives disappeared - presumably killed - whilst working undercover in Franco's Spain. I don't know where the others are. I don't even know if any are still alive." A thought seemed to strike her. "But there may still be records."
"All right, where?"
"Kirkdale Grange. It's a large manor house in Cornwall. The owner died in the late thirties, and the government took it over. They used it throughout the war as clearing-house for intelligence information and a holding center for the occasional German agent they captured inside Britain. A couple of senior members of the Round Table worked there in their "official" jobs, so the organization adopted it as a sort of informal headquarters. After the war, it eventually became a regional data processing center for the Inland Revenue. It handles the tax records for about a million people now... but I don't believe the old archives were ever moved out or destroyed. The house had extensive cellars and once computers came in, they didn't need as much storage space for their files, so... they just threw the war-era records into a dark basement to moulder into dust."
"You seem to know a lot about it."
She shrugged. "The place holds... memories. I keep an eye on it from time to time." From her tone, I knew that she wasn't about to elaborate.
"So, we sneak into Kirkdale Grange and see what we can find?" Nick and I both looked at Kathryn. As the oldest and most experienced of us, she's the closest thing we have to the leader of our little coterie, and we tend to follow her lead. She nodded decisively.
"That seems our best course of action. Try to find any record of what happened at the Priory fifty years ago - and why someone was so desperate to stop it."
The hairs were rising on the back of my neck. Break into a deserted government office in the middle of the night? It ought to be easy. But somehow, I didn't think it would be.